Mr. Guest


From The Unknown Huntsman. Published by QC Fiction in 2016. Translated by Katherine Hastings. Fortier works as a copy editor in Montreal. The Unknown Huntsman is his first book.

We haven’t slept since Saturday, we’ve been so excited by the arrival of a stranger, an odd sort of city mouse lost in the country. At first we thought—oh joy!—he was a constable come to re-establish order, drawn by some rumour carried on the wind all the way to the gates of the city, but word quickly spread that he was nothing more than a scientist. His oversized glasses made quite an impression on Mrs. Latvia, who likened them to those worn by a German philosopher, no doubt one from the Stone Age, and Angelina White, whose door he knocked on asking for a place to stay, seems to have traded her usual rags for corseted gowns with all the requisite whalebone and tulle to resemble a lady from a great city. Farmer McDonald, who works night and day on the farm and rarely ventures into the village, spotted her near the woods picking periwinkle and daisies for her corsage, if you can believe it! We wouldn’t be surprised if the stranger whisked her off her feet into a life of debauchery, poor Angelina, she’s been waiting for her Prince Charming for centuries.

But Baker Leaven has no time for such nonsense, he’s never been one for modesty, except in Mayor Gross’s dreams, and he’s certainly not afraid to show it:

“Mr. Mayor, with all due respect, I believe I speak on behalf of my fellow citizens when I ask that you allow our Guest to speak. After all, ’tis a rare occasion…”

We have to agree with him there, it is rare indeed, just ask Sybille—she was there when they decided to build the road to the village—she’ll tell you: They decided the road would go no further just to isolate us, we swear it’s true, because when you live at the end of the road, squeezed up against the forest like a chain-link fence, it sure makes you feel like you live in the middle of nowhere. Now the Guest is getting to his feet. He’s wearing a grey suit, his hair slicked back as if he’s at Sunday mass, doing his best to appear serious:

“Good evening, everyone.”

He smiles at us, and we return the nice Guest’s smile, then Angelina White stands and speaks, the shiny soles of her shoes clacking on the floor, startling Cantarini, who had nodded off, he must have been dreaming about his native Trieste or his dearly departed Nicoletta:

“Mr. Guest is actually Mr. Census-taker.”

Angelina the old spinster is looking pleased as punch, she’s just said more words in one minute than we’ve heard from her all month, but it takes more than that to impress the baker, who crosses his arms and says:

“The Census-taker? And what exactly is he sensing here?”

The stranger raises his eyebrows, lowers his eyelids, puckers his brows, widens his eyelids again, appearing to delve deep into his thoughts before replying:

“I’m conducting a census!”

Ahh, he’s conducting a census, so that’s it, duly noted, thank you for the clarification, Stranger. We turn to Mayor Gross who, despite his limited talents as a public speaker, did in fact pursue an education somewhere, at some time or other, and has some understanding of science, or at least that’s what Morosity used to say at the late Lisa Campbell’s hair salon, and he says:

“The science of census-t-t-t-aking. B-b-b-brilliant.”

Well, at least there’s one of us who knows what he’s going on about, even Mrs. Latvia is looking disoriented, she hasn’t pulled out her wretched hankies and gone all weepy on us yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Fortunately the Census-taker sets the record straight:

“The science of statistics.”

There he goes contradicting the mayor, oh these city folk aren’t afraid of anything, we’re telling you, and now the dynamics of the meeting have suddenly changed and here we are, a room full of pupils hanging on every word of a master who licks his lips and announces:

“I’ve been sent by the government.”

We shudder. The government. It doesn’t get any higher up than that, any more official, we can assure you, and just knowing the government has a vague idea of our existence sets our stomach churning and our mind spinning.

“The government needs to know exactly who lives here. Their age, their profession, more importantly, how many there are, and most important of all, their names.”

That’s a lot of details, a lot of information for one man, even for a Census-taker, and we swallow nervously because, frankly, exhibitionism has never been our thing. Oh sure, there was the time Amelia Gross, flanked by that homely Bertha, decided it would be nice to paint a mural on the municipal office depicting each inhabitant of the village, but she ran up against fierce opposition not only from us, but from the priest, Mrs. Latvia, the baker, practically everyone. Only Lisa Campbell, if we recall, thought it was a good idea. And Sybille, of course. So you see, when it comes to censuses and lists, well…

“I shall proceed methodically. I’m told the inhabitants of this village meet twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays.”

What’s this nitwit talking about? We meet on Mondays, never on Fridays, someone should set him straight, already making mistakes, it takes a government official to be so wide of the mark, how pathetic, and Leaven doesn’t hold back:

“With all due respect, you are mistaken. We hold our meetings every Monday. That’s it.”

The Census-taker looks the baker up and down, duly noting his belly, it seems, and replies:

“Name? Age? Profession?”

The baker folds his arms and grunts:

“Beg your pardon?”

“I don’t have a lot of time. We may as well get started. Name? Age? Profession?”

The room goes still, except for Angelina White, who helps herself to a licorice from her handbag as we stare wide-eyed, waiting for the baker to respond.

“If you think a fool like you is going to lay down the law in my village, you’d better think again.”

Impressive. The baker’s finally letting loose and speaking as if he were the one sitting in the mayor’s chair, while Roger Gross, like us, passively observes the joust. He doesn’t even flinch at the baker’s arrogance. But the Census-taker isn’t distracted:

“Name? Age? Profession?”

Leaven knits his brow as he does every time he’s exhausted all his arguments, and folds his hands over his belly, then Mrs. Latvia stands:

“You don’t want to get on your high horse now, Mr. Census-taker, because there are some in this village who would put you in your place in a wink.”

“I’m certainly not on my high horse. I have a job to do and no one is going to stop me from doing it. This is a National Census.”

There’s no mistaking the capital N and the capital C, just like when the baker kept going on about his damned Petition, they take themselves so seriously, those two, and in another context they’d likely become best of friends, but now Mrs. Latvia chips in again:

“In any case, Mr. Census-taker, there are some who are not at the meeting. There are the children, and a few adults too, out of malice.”

“I’m aware of that, miss.”

Ahh, now it’s miss, is it? Flattery will get him everywhere, and the florist softens at the sign of respect, fifty years of worry lines dropping from her forehead, but the Census-taker continues in a serious voice:

“I am aware of that. But by attending the Monday and Friday meetings, I will certainly manage to collect nearly all the information I need. As for the children, nothing could be easier; I’ll go to the school tomorrow morning.”

He must be a bit thick, this Stranger, going on about his Friday meeting, perhaps Angelina White served him one too many liqueurs and they went to his head, and now it’s Mayor Gross who sets the Census-taker straight:

“My dear friend, you are m-m-m-mistaken. As M-m-mister Leaven m-m-mentioned, our village meetings are on M-m-m-mondays only.”

The Census-taker stiffens and adjusts his hat, like a detective in the movies, before answering:

“Well then, it must have been an extraordinary meeting.”




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