...all afternoon they have been moving the woodpile from one
side of the yard to the other, so the winter-wet slabs can cure on
dry ground in the warm June air,
...the blood sun begins to set behind the shed; old Danny
appears in the yard, pulls up a round spruce block to sit on and
lights a pipe; the boy, fatigued now, sits next to the old Irishman,
stares at the place where the woodpile used to be, sees on the
ground a lingering patch of snowy ice, the hidden memory of
winter; how long would this have survived if the woodpile had
not been disturbed?
...Danny looks at the horizon and calls to Grandfather, Sailor’s
Storm coming tonight, pronounces Grandfather,
Send the boy in. It’s bedtime now, shouts Grandmother from
the kitchen window, her voice shrill and her mood jagged since
she got word of the death,
...Grandfather ignores her, goes into the shed, puts away the
...the boy’s arms dangle, too heavy to lift, wouldn’t even feel
part of his body if it weren’t for the wood slivers in his forearms;
bright shards of pain that must be hidden from Grandmother...or
she will dig them out with a sewing needle,
...Danny turns to the boy, I’ll grant the old Jesuitical Bastard
ramasseur.p65 61 4/1/2008, 11:45 PM
this, he wrote a few fine ones. And none finer than The Dead.
...but how can that be? how can anyone write the dead? weren’t
the dead something other than story? didn’t they, by the very act
of dying, remove themselves from the known world and all in it?
When you write your novel, make it something as fine as The
Dead. Promise me that my boy, says Danny,
...but don’t stories have to be inside you, before they can be
written down? how can he write something as fine as the dead
unless the dead are inside him?
Promise me now! insists Danny,
...yes, he will write the dead, because the dead can be inside
you; he’s heard Grandmother speaking to them: at night, when
she pulls the chain to the overhead bulb; she tells the boy it’s high
time he were asleep; so he pretends and watches through the
narrow slits of his eyes the red glow of the hot shag pipe tobacco
flickering against the sloped bedroom ceiling; between draws on
her pipe the old woman listens to the boy’s breathing, and when
she’s convinced he is gone to dream she begins talking to the
...she talks to the distant dead—her father, the lost man, and
her Angus—and to the recent dead, such as the Ejit; she tells him
he should have suspected those three devils would one day return
...the boy listens to these one-sided conversations, tries to
hear what the dead tell the old woman, but their words are hidden
from him and will continue to be hidden until he is dead too,
Joe. I told you to send him in. Don’t make me go out there!
shouts the old woman through the kitchen screen,
...Grandfather ignores her, mutters to Danny, It’s in the air. A
storm for sure.
...Danny’s voice nervous now, speaking to the boy, She’s in a
ramasseur.p65 62 4/1/2008, 11:45 PM
the dead 63
funk. Go inside. Quickly now. Or there’ll be hell to pay.
...hell to pay: but who pays?
...on his way to the house the boy sees in memory the image
of the Ejit, standing mutely at the door each Wednesday, a grown
man, as old as his mother, but with a face of a boy, placid and
unrevealing; never speaking a word, not even when Grandmother
hands him a still-warm loaf wrapped in a tea towel,
...last night in bed, the first night after his death, Grandmother
told the dead Ejit, See them all smug. They think I don’t know.
Divils in hell.
...tonight she tells the dead Ejit the story of how he led her
through the bush that day—when the witch’s middle daughter,
Petite Fleurette, lay bloated and panting on a bed of boughs; this
girl Grandmother had once taken into her house when she was
running from the devil, Asmodeus; she cared for her while she
raved and was wracked by visions; and for what: so she might
return to health and drive Angus away?
...and what was the woman to do when she saw this girl in the
Ejit’s shack, caught in the breach, panting like a wounded deer?
leave her to die?
...the boy listens to this story and can see the beautiful girl
running barefoot across the snow, falling beneath it and rising like
pure spirit; but this pure white suddenly fills the bedroom; what:
end of the world? will the dead now begin to return? bloated from
drowning or burnt like the Ejit?
...the brilliance vanishes and the room goes dark,
...now, another flash of white; in the window frame a whole
tree of lightning; no, not the end of the world, just the storm
predicted by Grandfather; the boy counts until he hears the low
rumbling lament, the danger five miles from here,
...the room repeatedly lights and then falls back into darkness;
ramasseur.p65 63 4/1/2008, 11:45 PM
but where does lightning retreat to? Elijah Ray says there was
once a jar so filled with liquid light that it burst and all the light
poured out across the world; is that all lightning is, just shards of
the lost light trying to find its way back?
...at the next stab of light the boy begins to count again, the
way Elijah Ray taught, measuring the distance between the living
and the dead,
...once when they were all sitting in the kitchen looking out
the window at a lightning storm, Francis pronounced, Lightning
hits you, you’re finished.
...Elijah Ray said, I been hit before.
Then how come you aren’t dead? asked Bernadette,
Shit, I was dead for two days that time.
...Bernadette unbelieving, How can you be dead then not-dead?
Depends what kind of dead you are, said Elijah Ray,
Oh, said Francis pretending to know exactly what Elijah Ray
...Bernadette announced, When I’m dead I’m staying dead. I
ain’t coming back to this for no one.
Who says you ain’t been dead already? asked Elijah Ray,
I’d of known.
Some kinds of dead you forget. Like those dreams you never
knew you had.
...lightning cracked again, and the lights flickered, Grandfather
stumbled into the room and to the cupboard where the holy water
was kept, We’ll all be killed! he wailed as he sprinkled the door
...the lights extinguished for a brief moment then returned,
Lizzy, the old man shouted, It’s the end! The reign of the beast.
What’s the commotion? said the old woman as she limped
down the stairs,
ramasseur.p65 64 4/1/2008, 11:45 PM
the dead 65
We’re done for! Grandfather called to her as he sprinkled
more of the water,
Quit your yammering, said Grandmother,
...when the lights went out again, Grandfather exclaimed,
Heavenly Father preserve us.
...Monica gasped and Francis began to stumble across the room
toward the matches, but Elijah Ray just sat undisturbed,
...Francis lit a match and the room was briefly illuminated,
the boy could see a perfect picture of everyone,
...Grandmother inched her way to the cupboard where the
holy candles were kept,
...Francis kept lighting matches for her, Grandmother found
the candles and chided the old man, You should have got the
candles out instead of the holy water.
These are church candles!
It’s about time they served some purpose.
...Grandmother placed the candles around the room, then
she took one with her and led the frightened old man upstairs,
...the foster children sat around the table and stared at the flames,
How did you make yourself come back? Francis asked Elijah Ray,
...Elijah Ray swept his hand through one of the candles and
the flame disappeared,
...the boy reached toward a lit candle but Monica caught his
wrist, telling him he would be burned; he looked at her fire-scarred
hand and withdrew from the flame,
...then Elijah Ray swept his hand above the extinguished
candle and the flame miraculously returned to its wick, explaining
everything about how the dead can return,
What did it feel like when you were dead? Francis whispered
No different than what you feel now, said Elijah Ray,
ramasseur.p65 65 4/1/2008, 11:45 PM
...thunder rumbles through the room now; Grandmother is
awake, calls to the boy from her bed, Are you frightened?
I’m not ascared, he replies but when lightning flashes again
he continues to count beneath his breath, so that he will know
just how far away death is,
Good then, try to get some rest. Tomorrow we have a funeral.
...the Ejit burned to death in his shack; when the boy asked if
it was hit by lighting Edmund said, Must of been. How would it
just all of a sudden burn?
...in his bed the boy tries to imagine the charcoaled body of
the Ejit; he asks the old woman, Do I have to go too?
...Grandmother mutters, We must all care for the dead.
...but how do you take care of the dead?
...the morning of the funeral, the storm is over and the air is
heavy with the scent of wet grass; the boy looks out of the bedroom
window and sees that it is snowing; when he runs downstairs he
meets Francis and announces the miracle, but Francis tells him,
Fluff is all. Poplars spilling their seed on the ground.
...the boy rides to the funeral parlour in a taxi with
Grandmother and Edmund and Francis and Monica and Elijah
Ray; Uncle Caleb is at work and Bernadette stays back to tend
Grandfather who has not risen from his bed and claims to have
been struck by lightning in the night,
...in the car Francis tells Edmund he isn’t scared to look at
the dead man and Grandmother tells him to shush and to show
more respect for the dead,
...respect for the dead,
...Guenette’s Funeral Home is dark inside; the boy is stung by
the smell of chemicals and perfume; his eyes begin to water and
his stomach feels hollow; the thickly carpeted hallway mutes his
steps; a corridor with a series of rooms with nameplates dangling
ramasseur.p65 66 4/1/2008, 11:45 PM
the dead 67
outside their door; Edmund reads the sign over the empty room,
...at the door to this parlour Grandmother is met by a thin
man with a hawk-like nose; he wears a shiny black suit and draws
her to the side of the room, whispering,
Yes, yes, she says impatiently, I’ll make sure it is all arranged.
...they enter the Ejit’s room; the boy wonders if the burnt
body in the coffin will return to life the way Elijah Ray did; Francis
holds the boy’s hand tightly and says, Don’t be scared.
...the boy remembers the soft face of the tall man who sat
with the bread on his lap, his dark eyes blank, never uttering a
word; what would that gentle face look like after death by fire?
would the lips be burned away? would the eyes bulge? the cheeks
all charred and blackened?
...when the boy reaches the front of the parlour, he sees the
coffin is closed,
Burnt too bad, says Francis,
...there are tall candles next to the head and the foot of the
coffin, behind the candles are small bouquets provided by the
...the boy stares at the top of the box and imagines nothing but
a charred wick inside; is that how the Ejit will return on judgement
day? will God allow them all to parade about as monsters?
...Grandmother is beside him now and urges him to kneel
with her and pray,
How come I got to pray?
Because we must care for the dead.
Because they continue to pray for us. And have cared for us
while they were alive. Which of us would not have been born if it
were not for the dead?
ramasseur.p65 67 4/1/2008, 11:45 PM
...the man in black with the long thin nose interrupts with his
presence, stands beside them; Grandmother looks at him
impatiently and says, I told you. I’ll make sure there are enough.
...the boy walks to the back of the room; Francis says, I need
...the boy stands in the sunlight, leaning against the side of
the yellow brick building with Francis and Elijah Ray; Grandmother
comes out like a gust of wind, barks at Francis, Come here.
...the boy thinks she is about to give Francis a tongue lashing
but she does not, she speaks quietly, issuing directions and Francis
runs off; the boy watches him cross the street and enter a distant
...the boy accompanies the old woman back into the dark,
empty room; he sits close to her now, feels her living warmth next
to him, watches her lips move in self-told stories he can not hear;
she shakes her head angrily at someone inside the story,
...when Francis returns he is sweating and goes directly to
Grandmother, he leans next to her ear and whispers something;
she nods as if she understands perfectly, then a wide, determined
frown spreads across her face and she lifts her bulk to her feet; she
limps to the funeral director and points a finger at him as she
speaks, the boy hears her say, There’ll be six.
...then the old woman walks to the back and leaves, the boy
follows her; the light outside is so bright the boy has to squint as
he watches the limping woman in the distance; begins to trail
her; Francis at his side warns, You better not. You’re going to get
us both in shit.
...the woman enters the Alouette Tavern, the boy slips along
the side of the building, peeks in, sees her march across a man-
filled room; someone calls out to her that she shouldn’t be there
but she doesn’t answer and walks to a table where three redheaded
ramasseur.p65 68 4/1/2008, 11:45 PM
the dead 69
men sit; one of them warns, This ain’t a place for women,
...Grandmother strides quickly to him, knocks him from his chair,
...the man in the next chair starts to stand, but the old woman
punches him in the face and he falls stunned to the floor; now
there is just one man left, Grandmother grabs the edge of the
table and overturns it; the amber glasses of draught slide off and
spill on him as he falls backwards and lands beneath the glasses
and the table; when he tries to stand Grandmother knocks him
Christ, Lizzy! he shouts from a pool of beer,
What we ever done to you? shouts a second man, trembling
in his voice and a terrified look in his eye, as if he were staring
straight into the muzzle of the black dog itself,
Get up, you hounds of hell!
Jesus Lizzy, we were just sitting here minding our own business.
Get up you divils!
...the old woman tosses the table aside and the man raises his
arms to protect his face,
...Francis, beside the boy at the back door, whispers, Christ, is
she in a bad one! We gotta get out of here before she sees us.
...the boy runs back to the funeral home with Francis, when
they get there Father Callaghan is leading the recitation of the
Rosary, May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed...
...Father Callaghan stops because of the commotion at the
back; everyone turns to see Grandmother enter: the shoulder strap
of her dark dress askew and her hat cock-eyed, her knuckles skinned
and bleeding, she limps into the room with dignity, takes her rightful
place at the front of the small gathering, and completes the prayer
for the dead: Through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
...there’s a shuffling at the back of the room as three new
ramasseur.p65 69 4/1/2008, 11:45 PM
...the priest concludes the prayers; the funeral director looks
at Grandmother and nods,
...she makes a sign for Edmund and Francis and Elijah Ray to
come forward; they look uncomfortable in their white shirts as
they take their place along one side the casket, the funeral director
stares at Grandmother as if to say, Where’s the rest?
...she waves the three at the back door to come forward; they
...the three men look like schoolboys: their shirts buttoned to
the collar, their hair smeared down with water, their eyes lowered;
but their faces are bruised and their wet clothes stink of beer, and
one of them has to brush away a trickle of blood issuing from his
lip; they take their place on the other side of the pauper’s casket;
then, in unison, as if all six have practised this for a lifetime, they
lift the dead man,
...and march slowly from the dim, sweet-smelling room, into
the blinding day, to the waiting hearse at the curb,
...Monica begins to weep as if for all the dead, and the small
gathering leaves the room,
...but the boy lingers at the back of the funeral parlour, alone now,
...he moves close to one of the two candles that was until just
a few moments ago at the head of the coffin; he sweeps his hand
above it and is stunned to see the flame vanish,
...he wants to look inside his palm but dares not open it,
...Monica comes back for him, bewildered to see him standing
with his fist clenched, What?
...he shrugs, feels the burden of what he’s just done,
...as they exit into the harsh light Monica looks at his hand
and asks, What have you got?
...he shakes his head, does not know how to tell her,
What? she whispers,
ramasseur.p65 70 4/1/2008, 11:45 PM
the dead 71
...all that day he hangs on tight,
...and that night when Monica comes into his room, she sees
Are you sad for the Ejit?
...he shakes his head, No,
...she puts her arm around him, draws him in with her scarred
hand, What? What’s the matter, then?
...the boy stares at his knotted fist,
Are you hurt?
...he shakes his head, No,
...the boy does not answer, thrusts his clenched hand toward
...a sudden fright sweeps across Monica’s face, she takes the
boy’s small fist into her fire-scarred hand and looks at it, then at
the boy’s eyes, Tell me, what is it?
...his eyes desperate,
...Monica’s words, jagged as tin, What’s wrong? What! Tell
...in a burst of tears the boy confesses, I don’t know where to
ramasseur.p65 71 4/1/2008, 11:45 PM