Songs for the Cold of Heart

Years before her mother bundled her onto a coach bound for New York City in a December blizzard, Madeleine Lamontagne had been a little girl who loved Easter bunnies, Christmas trees, and the stories told by her dad, Louis Lamontagne. Nothing out of the ordinary there. After all, everyone loved to hear Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne’s tall tales. Before television, his stories were the best way to pass the time in Rivière-du-Loup.

As any drinking man in Rivière-du-Loup will tell you, it was TV that killed the Horse, not the combustion engine. They’ll also tell you—and there’s no reason to doubt them—that any man’s story, wherever he may be, never finds a more attentive ear than his daughter’s, especially if she is the oldest and as such occupies a special place of her own in her father’s heart. All of which is to say that Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne, or Papa Louis as the children of Rivière-du-Loup liked to call him, never had a more attentive audience than his little Madeleine, sitting right there on the sofa in her father’s funeral home on Rue Saint-François-Xavier, in the parish of the same name, in the town of Rivière-du-Loup in the province of Quebec.

Amid the 1950s furniture stood a ghastly ashtray mounted on an honestto-goodness moose leg. A cousin had made it after carving up the carcass of the animal that Papa Louis had killed in the fall of 1953, when Madeleine was just three years old. She was now eight. Papa Louis was sitting in his armchair, and her two brothers on the bottle-green sofa. In her left hand, she held a full glass of gin that Papa Louis was eyeing thirstily.

“Get a move on, Mado! We wanna hear the story!”

It was Madeleine Lamontagne’s oldest brother Marc, age seven, who had just told his sister to hurry up and get Papa Louis a drink so the story could at last begin. The other brother, Luc, watched a dust mote drift through the air.

“Cut it out!” Madeleine retorted before sitting down to his right.

Marc slid his hand in under her thigh. She twisted his finger back, just enough to get her point across, not quite enough to dislocate it. Madeleine grinned. The gin was having its effect. There would be a story. To her left, Marc slipped his hand back under her thigh, and this time she let him. “His fingers must be cold,” Madeleine reasoned, thinking that if she picked Fiancée*.indd 11 19-03-19 16:08 12 a fight with her brother, Papa Louis might suddenly decide to send them all off to bed. Fortunately, Marc turned his attentions away from her and watched Papa Louis knock back his gin. To Marc’s left, little Luc, his darkhaired head leaning against his big brother’s frail shoulder. He was going to fall asleep from one moment to the next. Luc, age five, had come into the world the day of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II: June 2, 1953. The sofa was almost full, but there would have been room for the cat if their mother Irene had allowed it.

“No cat on the sofa. It’s not hygienic,” she had decreed one day.

There had been cake for supper. Luc had eaten too much of it—he had eaten Madeleine’s share as well as his own—only to vomit it back up all over his brother Marc. So Luc was already in his PJs. Madeleine had changed him out of his dirty clothes; their older brother had had to get cleaned up. Little Luc was nodding off. It was looking like he would miss the end of the story, but that was perhaps for the best, considering how sad it was. Maybe the dead man in the adjoining parlour would find the story entertaining.