Trouble at the Henhouse


From Life in the Court of Matane. Translated by Peter McCambridge. Published by QC Fiction in 2016.

Despite my efforts to go undetected in the schoolyard, Jimmy Côté was always popping up nearby. First, he wanted to be sure that I was, indeed, the son of Henry VIII. Then, with the help of other birds of a feather, he made it clear that uniforms were a sore point with him. For me, 1982 was the year of stomach-clenching cramps. Not a day went by without an ambush, not a single recess was terror-free. I took refuge in the henhouse.

There, too, things were beginning to fall in around me. The rate of lay had plummeted with the cold nights. One morning, death visited my hens for a second time. It was the little brother who came running back in from the henhouse, panicked by what he had just seen there. The temperature had dropped below zero during the night. Clearly no one had ever explained rigor mortis to him. At a loss for words, he lay down on his back and showed us that one of the hens had taken up the very same position and was refusing to budge. The hen must be dead, we explained to him. “It can’t be,” he maintained. “Its eyes were open.”

I investigated. A hen had indeed died during the night. One of the younger ones. There was no sign of injury. A perfunctory autopsy revealed that she had been bitten from behind. The king suspected a weasel. The other hens went about their business, blissfully unaware. I had a new enemy to deal with.

Things began to heat up at school. Jimmy and his gang of mercenaries had taken over the schoolyard. Mr. Ferguson’s ghost stories seemed to have little effect on them. One day in October, the tension reached boiling point. With my thoughts consumed by my hen’s murder, I had forgotten my fear of Jimmy and didn’t see him and his gang walk over. They began with a few slaps I didn’t see coming, a classic technique. I don’t know what came over me that day; I think the weasel affair had left a bitter taste in my mouth. Not that I was overly fond of my hens. Truth be told, they were a lot of work and were becoming harder and harder to look after. No, on that particular morning, I was mostly thinking about the nasty weasel and its treacherous attacks, and I felt an anger the size of a pea forming somewhere deep inside me. The pea grew, filled out, and took on a personality of its own that had as many qualities as flaws. Without really understanding why, and without really looking up, I grabbed Jimmy’s first apostle by the throat and held him tight until he began to turn blue. The colour went perfectly with his eyes and shoes, I thought. A touch too pale, perhaps. A deathly shade of blue would suit the little blond runt to a T. I would have to tighten my grip a little. Julie Santerre and her chicks would usually cheer on battles and acts of violence against me, cackling: “Blood! We want blood!” This time, they were there all right, but they were so astounded, they’d been struck dumb. It was as though it was their necks I was gripping in my hand. They didn’t come to the wretch’s defence, nor did they encourage him to kill me, as was their wont. Jimmy Côté, completely taken aback, made no move to step in and help out his vassal, which speaks volumes about honour among hoodlums. The boy was slowly turning blue right before my eyes, while I marvelled at just how strong my arms were. I silently thanked Henry VIII for getting me into body building.

This flash of manliness was proof positive that integration is possible, no matter the setting, provided you make a little effort. The pecking order wasn’t set in stone, after all. A simple throttling was enough to rejig it. No need for anyone to lose any teeth. Julie Santerre and the chicks still didn’t say a word. I could feel the heat rising from the kid’s neck beneath my fingers. His carotid artery was throbbing right where my thumb and index finger met. His pulse was racing. I wondered if he, too, was going to fall on his back, eyes open, teeth clenched. He was so thin. Just a few more weeks’ training, I thought to myself, and I’d be able to snap his neck with one hand. I imagined the cracking sound his vertebrae would make as they snapped. Whispers went up from the students crowded around me. Someone prayed to God. The aesthete in me still wasn’t happy with the colour of the little hoodlum’s face; his skin was so soft and pale. I’d never thought of him as good-looking, but now the blond kid almost moved me to pity. My breathing accelerated. A girl cried out.

I felt a powerful hand grab my wrist. It was Mr. Ferguson. A ghost must have tipped him off. The dead always rat on you. Ironically enough, my victim, the fair-haired boy, was the one who found the drowned sailor’s body on the beach. Had he shouted so loudly that day because the sailor’s blue face prophesied this October morning in 1982 when he was almost choked to death? Can you read the future in a winkle? Mr. Ferguson, who must have eaten his own fair share of eggs, separated me from my victim. Colour was slowly returning to the boy’s face. I stood there, breathing hard, arms by my sides, in front of Julie Santerre and her chicks, Jimmy Côté and his hoodlums, and Mr. Ferguson. There was a deathly silence. And yet I wasn’t thinking of them at all. I was thinking back to the soft, throbbing neck of that little fair-haired boy; to our breathing, together as one; to his beautiful blue eyes rolling back in his head; to his hair, as fine as the hair on the heads of Étienne’s dolls; and to his pink-blue lips, the colour of winkles.

The incident had the effect of a nuclear bomb going off in the schoolyard. The kid got his breath back and walked off, helped by his companions. Julie Santerre and her chicks had, for once, ceased their morning cackling. Surprise and bemusement being the usual way for poultry to grasp reality, the birds remained stunned for a while before they returned to their pecking. The sweet smell of death, like the promise of as-yet-unexplored pleasures, seeped into this scene from life on the Gaspé Peninsula. Mr. Ferguson was furious. I didn’t care. I was on an astral journey of my own. Since he was in communication with the spirits, I would have liked Mr. Ferguson to assure me that, one day, the memories of Saint-Ulric would be nothing more than sorrowful archives. Everyone has archives. The problem with my own is that every little tremor sends dust flying from the hundreds of volumes. It gets right up my nose, chokes me, and forces me into a cleaning spree.

Funnily enough, no one ever called me a faggot at school again.

The weasel, on the other hand, continued to prey on my mind. The henhouse massacre continued. Each morning brought with it a new corpse. The weasel attacked only the weakest, which is to say, the younger chickens. I didn’t get it. Had it been wolves or other birds, the threat would have been wiped out with a few pecks. The hens were huge and there were twenty of them against a tiny weasel. They had already proved they were vicious enough to kill one of their own to defend their territory. With a little intelligence, they could easily have made a midnight snack of the weasel. But there you have it: hens aren’t very bright. Thousands of years in captivity has turned them into morons, to the extent they couldn’t care less if they see one of their own die right in front of them, just so long as the pecking order is respected. They’ll offer up the weakest—“Kill her! Kill her!”—without realizing they themselves will be the weasel’s next victims. I now know that every omelette, every angel cake, every soufflé, and every bucket of Colonel Sanders’ fried chicken brings us closer to a better, more intelligent world, where cruelty and pettiness do not exist. Reader! Have some chicken tonight without the slightest remorse! Vegetarians! Join our ranks and unite your digestive tracts against them! As with every great revelation in life, it took an animal as mundane as the hen to get me to see the light. One night, I came home from school to find my hens plucked and frozen. The king had butchered them. He had chopped all their heads off. One after the other. The heads were stacked in a pool of blood. I saw in Julie Santerre’s lifeless eyes the imminent end of Anne Boleyn’s reign and Jane Seymour’s accession to the throne.

We weren’t out of the woods yet.

At school, the pecking order had changed. I was no longer part of it. I wasn’t at the bottom, and I wasn’t at the top. I was in a class all my own. The blows I had once received were now destined for Étienne. I couldn’t do anything to help him. Only watch. There’s only so far an attempted murder can get you in a henhouse that size.

I never, ever, made fun of the smell of manure again.



Eric Dupont is the author of four novels and winner of Radio-Canada’s “Combat des Livres” and other awards. He lives in Montreal.


Toby Sharpe


I don’t know where a person can go when they disappear, apart from underwater.


Young Earle Birney in Banff: September 1913¹

what a day!at the Basin2 dove from the tufa overhanginto the water, playing my trick ofseeming to drown, not coming up until I finish wrigglingthrough that underwater chimneyand burst into air. always startles the tourists.


Zamboni Driver’s Lament

i know hate, its line-mates. believe me. you kids have, i’m sure, wasted—all early morning anxious and weak-ankled—their first impatient shuffle-kicks and curses on me.