A strange and anonymous narrator, an unnamed village, an unsolved murder, a mysterious huntsman, and a wisdom tooth extraction gone terribly wrong. There’s no shortage of intrigue in this offbeat debut novel by Jean-Michel Fortier. A bewitching story full of dark humor and laugh-out-loud absurdity, The Unknown Huntsman is full of gossipy run-on sentences and snide remarks from the narrator. It reads like an allegory or dark adult fairy tale, and its motto could be: "If you don’t want answers, don’t ask questions."
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About the Author
Jean-Michel Fortier was born in Quebec City in 1987. He completed a master’s degree in literature at Université Laval before moving to Montreal, where he currently works as a copy editor. The Unknown Huntsman is his first book. After immigrating to Canada from the U.K., Katherine Hastings spent ten years in Ontario before moving to Montreal, where she completed a degree in modern languages at McGill University. She has worked as a Quebec-based translator and copyeditor since 1995. This is her first stab at literary translation, a field she looks forward to exploring further.
Read an Excerpt
The Unknown Huntsman
By Jean-Michel Fortier, Katherine Hastings
Baraka BooksCopyright © 2014 La Mèche
All rights reserved.
WE MEET ONCE A WEEK in the big parish hall beneath the church, the parish hall whose walls are steeped in sin, with its low ceiling as though it had been flattened by something bigger. Because of course when it comes to religion, it's all about size. We meet there the day after the Lord's day. A big gathering on Sunday in the church, all white and clean, cold and vast as the heavens, then another smaller meeting in the dark, dingy, hot-as-hell basement on Mondays. We often think what a shame it is that mass isn't held in the parish hall too because, for napping, nothing beats a warm room, as I'm sure you'll agree.
It's not the priest who runs the Monday meetings. He sits on a metal chair like the rest of us mortals. On Mondays, everyone's an equal and, believe us, it's a good thing, what with the baker who thinks he's mayor and the mayor who often thinks he's God, and then the priest with all his connections, it would be a right mess.
Most of the time, nobody says anything for a good fifteen minutes. We rub the back of our necks, look down at the floor, then up at the ceiling, for good measure. Often a woman will pipe up first, grumbling about something or other, like last week when Angelina White complained about the ruckus caused by the children of Lisa Campbell, the hairdresser, who allows her brood to run wild in the street until all hours, then lets them loose again in the morning before Farmer McDonald's rooster has even thought about crowing:
"My sole concern is for the health of the little ones. Mrs. Campbell, children simply cannot thrive on three or four hours' sleep a night. It's not good for them."
When the accuser is a woman as virtuous as Angelina White, the affair is wrapped up in no time, and the show of hands is conclusive: we ask Mrs. Campbell to control her children, e basta. The e basta is a little Italian twist, at the request of Giorgio Cantarini, the war widower whose wife died at the laundry — boiled to death — while he was at the front, and it was also with a show of hands that we had voted to always wrap things up with e basta.
There's something definitive and faintly exotic about it, we think, except for Cantarini, that is, who still speaks the language and, as a matter of fact, it took us ages to understand what he meant by e basta anyway because he didn't even bother asking us in our own language. We've since taught him the basics of the language, and now he can get by in society.
Once the first complaint has been aired, often by a prim and proper lady, the ice is broken and we can all speak openly. Every now and again a man will stand up and make a minor — or sometimes major — announcement, like last month when Albert Miller shared his intentions:
"I'm going to marry Blanche Bedford."
The would-be bride was not in attendance, as she had yet to turn eighteen, the minimum age for taking part in the Monday meeting. Not because matters of a particularly adult nature were discussed there, but rather because if it weren't for the rule, Mrs. Campbell would bring along her flock of children, and there's simply not enough room for them to tear around in there. The age limit is another decision we made together, but of course we never let on that it was to keep out the Campbell kids. That would have irritated their mother no end, and our Monday meetings aren't about irritating people; Sunday mass fills that role just fine.
After the announcements, it's time to get down to brass tacks. Very often it's the baker, Mr. Leaven, who gets the ball rolling because, while the Monday meetings are supposed to put us all on an equal footing, the baker is, after all, still the baker, and this one's a real talker, and never at a loss for topics. He plucks a subject out of thin air:
"Stray dogs ..."
"The price of flour ..."
This week, sure enough, he brings up Sybille. You could say she's a recurring theme with him, probably because the baker lives in the last house on St. Andrew's Street, the last one before the forest, the same forest where Sybille spends most of her time. You could practically call it her home, but no one really knows if she actually lives anywhere, in the true sense of the word. All we know is that she's older than us and she speaks a strange language. Sometimes she cries out at night in her barbarian dialect, and it's as if the entire forest had awoken and was calling for help, and we can sympathize, because Sybille is quite a number. Just ask the baker.
"Sybille has been stealing my loaves, I swear it."
We let out a collective gasp, as never before at the Monday meeting has anyone accused another of stealing, except for the time when Mayor Morton claimed that young Amelia Gross was stealing pens from his desk although, after an investigation into the matter, we realized they'd simply rolled into the heating vent under his desk, where they slowly melted, which explained why the village office smelled like scorched ink for the longest time, but in any case, Mayor Morton was relieved of his duties because accusing someone without proof is just not done, well, actually it is, but not when you hold office. So we sent Morton packing, and he killed himself shortly after, who knows if the two events were connected, and we elected Amelia's father, Roger Gross, who is still our sitting mayor. We probably did so partly to right the wrong done to his child, after all, who would want a Gross as mayor, but at least he never goes around pointing fingers, and his daughter is happy now, except for when she claims to anyone who will listen that she won't live a day beyond the age of fourteen. God only knows where she got such an idea, but come to think of it, we wonder whether it could have been Sybille, speaking of whom, here goes the baker again about his missing loaves:
"Every evening I prepare my bread before I go to bed, around nine o'clock. That way, I can sleep in a bit longer and all I have to do is bake the loaves before I open up at eight the next morning."
That's our baker, we think. Always sleeping and dreaming about his bed — or about a woman in his bed — with his fat belly stuffed full of dough. We suspect he eats more bread than he sells and, according to his neighbour, the florist, who swears she heard him one July evening, his yeasty belches resound for hours at a time, but Leaven hasn't finished:
"For the past two weeks, I've set my loaves out on the windowsill in the evenings between 8:30 and 8:45 to air them out a bit. I figure it can't do them any harm to feel the spring breeze. It's important to let the bread breathe, you see. But I noticed that yesterday — and last Friday too — there were two loaves missing when I went to collect them. Because, you see, I always set one dozen loaves on the sill and yesterday, when I went to get them, there were only ten."
While we find his story plausible enough, we wonder whether he counted them properly before laying them on the windowsill, but we soon discard the idea of an error on his part: the baker is good with numbers, and if he says he made twelve loaves, there's no way he made only ten. There's no doubt about it; the man knows how to count. All the same, to err is human, but before we can decide whether to raise the possibility, the baker continues:
"And that's not all. Yesterday when I went to get my bread, there on the sill, where there should have been two loaves, were two small clay bowls full of wild strawberries."
We gasp in unison, because we know full well there's only one person around who makes such bowls to carry her wild strawberries in, the only person who doesn't own a single plastic container — not that we've never offered her any. It's just that she prefers to live that way, like an Indian, like a savage, as we say, anyway as you've probably guessed by now, the person we're talking about is, of course, Sybille, who the baker is accusing ever more blatantly of bread lifting, and he could well have a point.
"Do you see? It's as if she paid me for the bread with wild strawberries. But the problem is — and here I'm talking to you, Mr. Mayor and Father Wavery — a loaf of bread is worth far more than a handful of strawberries that I can pick myself just outside my own bakery door. It's not as if it's a fair exchange."
Our gaze shifts to Mayor Gross because, between him and the priest, it's the mayor who has the final say on financial matters, of course it should probably be up to a judge to decide, but there is no judge in the village, and even if there were, who knows whether he'd even attend the Monday meetings. Rumour has it that judges only leave their chambers for professional visits, that they call their mothers once a year on All Saints' Day and that's it, so why shouldn't Mayor Gross decide whether or not Sybille is guilty, even if she's not here to defend herself. She's probably up to no good in the woods or perhaps she's stealing from one of the villagers at this very instant, which reminds us we're going to have to keep a close eye on our belongings from now on, a thief in our midst — who could have imagined such a thing? — and now the mayor looks like he wants to say something:
"M-m-my friends. B-b-baker L-l-l-leaven. Un-un-unfounded a-a-accusations are n-n-n-not w-w-w-welcome here. Re-me-me-member my d-d-d-daughter Amelia and the b-b-business with the pens."
We forgot to mention that Mayor Gross has an awful stutter, another strike against him in addition to his unflattering name, who would have thought that a stutterer with a name like his would one day become mayor? His mother must be proud but, never mind, let's hear what else the mayor has to say:
"I-I-I think it's b-b-b-est to stick to the facts. M-m-mister L-l-leaven, I w-w-will investi- ga-ga-gate this b-b-b-read theft my-my-myself. F-f-f-first thing to-to-tomorrow."
Mayor Gross is not the kind of man who rules with an iron fist, as you've probably noticed; Mayor Morton, on the other hand, now he knew how to run a tight ship, unfortunately he had a tendency to accuse children of stealing, and that's an unfortunate habit for a politician, ahh, there's Father Wavery getting to his feet, that's unusual for him — he usually just sits there in the corner and scratches his nose.
"My children, let us all go home now. There's no point continuing to badmouth one another. Let's all just sleep on it."
They seem to want to cut the meeting short. We notice the priest is sweating more than usual, perhaps he has an upset stomach this evening, or maybe it's nerves. We don't dare ask; a holy man's intestinal health is between him and God, but at least the meeting hasn't dragged on forever, and now we can go home and keep an eye on our things, oh yes, we're going to keep our eyes peeled from now on.CHAPTER 2
WE MEET EVERY FRIDAY in the church basement, Fridays because that's the only evening everyone is at home, relaxing quietly by the fire. They cherish their habits in the village. We're always a little worried we'll get caught. On Mondays they hold the village meeting right here in the same hall. Ironic, isn't it? They come to air their petty problems while we ...
The Professor raises his finger.
"My brothers and sisters, welcome!"
He always begins with that. It reassures us. We smile.
"My children, you may have attended the Monday meeting and heard the accusations made against one of ours."
We shudder. The Professor rubs his gold-rimmed glasses and thunders:
"This is a cowardly act! Oh so cowardly! Weak is he who accuses without proof. Remember Morton and his ridiculous ideas about the daughter of one of our members ..."
Morton, that idiot. He paid dearly for his treachery.
"That's right, on Monday they accused Sybille of stealing."
A quiver of fear runs through us.
"Sybille, a pilferer ... can you believe it!"
He gives us a mischievous look and bursts into raucous laughter. We look at each other and titter softly. The Professor knows how to calm our nerves.
"And you know what the funniest thing is? Do you know what she is accused of stealing?"
We hang on his every word.
"Bread! Oh, but not just any bread ... Loaves, to be precise!"
He spreads his arms and legs wide and skips across the stage. And now we really can't contain ourselves, we double up with laughter, guffawing until tears run down our cheeks.
"I ask you," he goes on. "What on earth would Sybille want with loaves of bread?"
By this time, we're rolling on the floor in hysterics, banging our palms and feet on the linoleum, we've never heard anything so hilarious.
"No, I mean, seriously, I'm asking you!"
We can't stop laughing, what a wonderful sense of humour he has!
"I'm asking you!"
Our ribs ache, our eyes stream with tears of joy, what a resounding success this meeting is turning out to be!
"I'm asking you, I said I'm asking you!"
A loud crack rings out from the front of the hall as a pane in one of the basement windows shatters. We look up. The gun in the Professor's hand is still smoking.
"I said I'm asking you!"
He is furious. He hates it when we don't do as he says. When he asks a question, he expects an answer. How stupid we are, how ashamed we feel. We raise our hand, our arm trembles and we grip it tight with the other hand.
"Yes? What is it?"
"Professor, you wish to know what Sybille would do with loaves of bread, is that right?"
Our voice quivers slightly. He stares at us through his fogged-up gold-rimmed glasses. We've only got one chance; we must get the answer right.
"Perhaps she could eat them?"
The Professor points his gun straight at us. We cover our face with our hands. In a nearly inaudible voice he asks:
"Eat them, have I heard you correctly?"
We nod, we think we may faint. Centuries pass. It's amazing how a metal pipe levelled at you can freeze the blood in your veins.
He finally turns his gun away. He gazes at us for a long time, then gales of laughter burst forth from his mouth.
We smile. We're pleased he likes our suggestion. He laughs even harder.
"Eat them! You'd think I was surrounded by a bunch of retards. Hah! Eat them!"
We're in heaven. The Professor has found a name for us. We're now worthy of a name. We are "retards." This meeting has been truly wondrous. He whoops uproariously and wonderfully, then becomes serious again:
"But the fact remains, that baker is a real scourge. Always has been. One of these days we'll have to do something about him. Now go home, my children. You need to rest. We'll have to see how this business with Sybille plays out."
Our Professor motions to one of the plumper members among us and walks her to the back of the hall, how lucky she is! A private conversation.
We leave the hall, blissful, just as the rain begins to drum down, seeping in through the broken windowpane.CHAPTER 3
DESPITE WHAT THEY SAY, that human nature takes a thousand and one ever-changing forms that would be impossible for us to explain, but — do you hear that? — there we go philosophizing, rambling on, holding forth; Mr. Timothy Worne would be proud, that poor man who struggles daily to capture the interest of his class of ten pupils, though you have to admit the Campbell kids, in particular, aren't easy to control, in fact just last month the middle boy nearly set fire to his desk playing with firecrackers. Amelia, the Gross child, and that bumpkin Bertha, Farmer McDonald's daughter, could set the young thug on the straight and narrow: those two snot-nosed urchins are serious and hardworking at school, and while poor old Bertha will never see much beyond the rabbit hutches of the family farm, Amelia Gross could well end up pursuing an education someplace else, at an institution where she broadens her horizons and gets away from it all, somewhere over the hills and far away, if you get our drift.
But as we were saying, human nature never ceases to amaze, especially in this village, where meetings blend one into the next, although never in quite the same way.
Excerpted from The Unknown Huntsman by Jean-Michel Fortier, Katherine Hastings. Copyright © 2014 La Mèche. Excerpted by permission of Baraka Books.
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