This is a wry, witty, ingenious story, a tour de force of whimsy, not really a single story, but ten completely different micro-stories hung on the same peg. Tim Conley is a bit like Scheherazade; you get the feeling he could spin out a different story every night ad infinitum. He sets you up with an introduction in the voice of a folklorist or linguist who’s found a peculiar idiom in rural Quebec — le voisin n’a qu’une maison. It means something like “the neighbour has only one house,” which, well, makes no sense. But the folklorist opines that there might have been a story behind the idiom, a tale lost to the ages. With that, Conley is off to the races, inventing those tales, from slapstick to faltering romance, completely different sets of characters and life-situations, wonderfully told.
In a small agrarian town in northern Quebec, they have a saying: le voisin n’a qu’une maison, “the neighbour has only one house” or “the neighbour only has a house,” depending on where one prefers to hear the emphasis. Exactly what this phrase means has proved a puzzle for linguists and sociologists. Though not altogether inhospitable, the steely-eyed townsfolk do not much care for the questions of outsiders. Suggestions of an unknown story behind the expression –of its being a mnemonic tag (of no known specific use), of its being part of an allegory or homily (perhaps distorted by abbreviation, the way “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” has disintegrated to the incoherent “the proof is in the pudding”), or of its having some historical basis (an account of a specific someone’s neighbour, maybe, or a particular house)– all remain unverified. Unfortunately, it has not even been determined whether the following scenarios are accounts of real incidents or inventions produced for the very purpose of illustration, but they are faithfully recorded here as they were found, received, or told, with as much detail and context as were available.
After a long rainstorm, a man out walking is struck by a large, sodden branch that breaks off from a very old tree and pins him to the ground. Two sawyers working nearby rush to his aid and he informs them that he is barely able to breathe; they must hurry. But the branch is too heavy for them to lift. The first sawyer offers to run and fetch a saw, not sixty paces away, but the second sawyer becomes concerned that the pinned man might die in the interim, and while the first sawyer would be subsequently commended for his fast thinking and valiant efforts, the second sawyer would look like a dolt waiting and helplessly watching the man die, and so the second sawyer tersely accuses the first sawyer of not lifting his part of the branch with all of his apparently little strength. So the sawyers again try to lift the branch, and ultimately collapse with even more huffing and panting than before. The pinned man signals that he is without air. The second sawyer announces that he will fetch the saw, and the first sawyer, seeing what his unscrupulous partner is playing at, promptly socks him in the jaw. The second sawyer gets up from the ground and rushes headlong into the first, the two of them crashing together into the tree. This impact causes another branch to break off, and it bounces off of one end of the first fallen branch, neatly knocking it off the gasping man, who crawls toward the other people who have now gathered at the scene. The two sawyers have hit each other half a dozen more times before they realize what has happened. A witty bystander might aptly remark: le voisin n’a qu’une maison.
Children play in such tall grass that they cannot see one another. They soon become separated but, each thinking that the others must be together, none wants to be the first to cry out for help, and thus the first branded a coward and surely taunted ever after. One finally has the ingenuity to call out accusing another of being lost. Years later, the friends recount this story at a reunion and own up to their common fears, but they cannot agree which of them came up with the solution. Angrily the inspired one leaves the party, muttering, c’est vrai que le voisin n’a qu’une maison.
Making summer afternoon love by a stream, a young couple is interrupted by cries for help, but they cannot see who is calling and cannot bring themselves to break their exquisite rhythm. The voice shouts that it is drowning, drowning, drowning, but neither lover can see anyone in the unconcernedly flowing water, and their ardor won’t let them part. By the time they are sated, the cries have stopped. They explore the area, and walk downstream a good mile or more before they give up. When they say goodbye to one another, each seems embarrassed and uncertain. Each attends closely to the local news and town talk for days afterward, but neither finds any report of any drowning, and the absence of any such report stymies their communications with one another. They can speak of nothing else, but of this subject they have nothing to say. She changes her hair, and he silently judges the style wrong. He is offered a new job in the next town, a town the two of them had habitually remarked upon as an undesirable place to live, and she tries to be encouraging. After he has moved and eventually finds that the job and the town both suit him, he writes a letter to his friend and tells him about the incident that summer afternoon, and reflects on how fickle the heart is. His friend’s reply: “You idiot, le voisin n’a qu’une maison.”
A father accuses his son of stealing his boots, and the offended son leaves home. In a distant town he finds work as an assistant to a rheumatic sawbones, a kindly man who recognizes the young man’s talent for swift and acute diagnosis, begins to teach him about more than the ordinary ailments and tried remedies. The young man devotes himself to medicine and becomes so trusted by the local people that he very gradually takes over the old doctor’s practice. Within a few years he finds himself brought in to deliver the mayor’s child, a difficult operation because the woman’s cervix is, like her husband, anything but flexible, and the labour lasts three days. On the morning of the third, a message is brought to the physician: it is from his father, who reports that he has found his boots, and all is forgiven. The mayor’s wife pauses in her shrieking when she sees her doctor’s face momentarily lose its imperturbable aspect, and asks him what is wrong. He answers, le voisin n’a qu’une maison, and resumes his work.
Complaining of his breakfast at an inn, a guest unconsciously runs his fingers through his beard as he is dressing down the manager, a woman who takes this gesture as a lewd suggestion. She takes greater offence than she might because, sordid truth be told, she was feverishly fantasizing about this very guest’s beard the night before, which is not at all the sort of thing she would normally do. She more than matches his barrage of insults. Not accustomed to hoteliers abusing him, and surprised and upset to hear that his beard-stroking was in any way vulgar, the guest begins stammering an apology, whereupon the manager, realizing that she has overdone it, herself begins to apologize. She says that his dinner will be on the house, and he replies that he will only accept if she will dine with him. Just then the manager’s miserable, lazy, and cleanshaven husband, who has just been stealthily coming down the staircase behind them, snarls, le voisin n’a qu’une maison, but chokes on the last word, and rolls down the remaining stairs to the floor, never to be revived. On his headstone his widow has written: le voisin n’a qu’une maison.
An unmarried schoolteacher arouses the distrust of a student’s mother, who thinks that such situations are ghastly beyond words. This mother circulates the story that the schoolteacher is known to walk the streets at night, perhaps asleep but perhaps not, and the story’s vagueness ensures that it spreads like wildfire in a high wind. The schoolteacher finds herself unwelcome in certain places and unacknowledged by certain people. One day she overhears two of her students recounting a version of the story, and she decides to take up walking the streets at night, but dressed in her mother’s bridal gown. The story evolves and diversifies in quick response to witness accounts of her wordless, almost ethereal perambulations: she is a widow, longing for her dead husband, in love with a ghost; she has been seduced by some man in the community, who will not do right by her, perhaps because he is already married, and these nightly marches are her mute but moving protest; she is a lunatic, imagines herself wed to the moon; she has been hypnotized by the wicked schoolchildren, and unknowingly seeks a groom every night; she is holy; she is cursed; she is the picture of sorrow; she is a sign of hope. The mother’s original story and spite are eclipsed. Without exception her students all become more attentive to their studies. One cloudless night a man walks out to intercept her in the middle of the street, falls to his knees and asks for her hand in marriage. She says with a voice not her own, le voisin n’a qu’une maison.
A man loses his boot walking through an extremely muddy field one rainy evening. He arrives home and his father-in-law, with whom the man, his wife, and their children live, asks him what inspired him to go out in such weather in one boot. Trying to assume the patience necessary for dealing with this suspicious, narrow-minded old goat, the man explains that on the eve of the feast of St. Bunions it is considered good luck to walk in the evening with only one boot. His father-in-law scoffs but is still thinking about it when he retires to his room. He wonders whether there is some truth to the story, or whether it is simply some excuse meant to conceal something, and his inability to decide between these possibilities sends him out later that night, when the others are asleep in bed, in one boot, determined to find out which is the case. In the now quite fierce wind and the rain he hobbles and anxiously looks about, without having any set idea as to what he is looking for, and before long he is completely lost, though he does not admit as much to himself, and keeps hunting for his answer. He is found, shivering in a small wood, early the next morning. A doctor asks him some questions as he examines the old man sleepless in his bed, but obtains only nonsensical answers about hidden treasure, his many enemies, a saint nobody has heard of. The doctor is asked by one of the children whether grandfather will be all right, and he answers, “It is difficult to say, but le voisin n’a qu’une maison.”
A daring fox has been attacking a number of adjacent poultry farms, inspiring wagers in a popular tavern as to who is to be the next victim. One evening, when the betting is high and the laughter loud, the odds-on favourite, a grizzled and gruff man to whom life has seldom been kind, loses his composure and openly sobs into his drink. Early the next morning, the fox is killed by hunters and its carcass is brought to the sad farmer. He holds it up by the tail and says, le voisin n’a qu’une maison. The next day he puts the farm up for sale and leaves the country.
Recounted by a nonagenarian in a Sherbrooke nursing home: “If you threw a stone in a pond, and there was this large pond near the old cottage, one of my cousins nearly drowned there, and we teased him for years afterwards, called him the fish, there goes the fish, he hated that. What they don’t know, I’ll tell you, is how long a grievance can last. And I doubt their medical credentials, I’ll tell you that. But it was the pond wasn’t it, to return to our subject, if you threw a stone in a pond, you would naturally expect what are they called ripples, yes, but if you threw a stone in the pond and there were absolutely no ripples, and though this has never happened to a stone I threw, and look at me, I’m not going to be throwing any stones now, but do you know, never count anybody out, I’ll tell you that, never count anybody out. But that pond. Any pond, really. The trick is to throw a stone into it without causing a single ripple, and once I saw this done by a small girl nobody thought capable of anything, she was always following our gang around, and after all of us gave up on the game, she picked up a stone and threw it right in, not a single ripple. That girl went on to marry a big shot, I heard, I don’t remember who told me, but what I said when I heard about it was le voisin n’a qu’une maison, as my grandmother used to say when she cut up the lemons. And that really summed it up, you know.”
A talented singer finds herself unable to master a particular score that she has agreed to perform. The piece is not especially demanding, she admits to her mother, but invariably her breathing becomes irregular somewhere in the middle and her enunciation falters. She must impress this patron and cannot turn down the commission without injury to her reputation and career. Her mother assures her that everything will be all right, that she will surely master the piece soon, that it is probably just nerves. The daughter seethes in silence: how she wishes her mother could be more severe with her, slap her across the face and shout at her to work harder, or else be less encouraging, say to her that the commission doesn’t matter, that this only shows that music was never really her future; but instead it will always be all right, according to her mother. She decides that she will disgrace herself on stage to shatter her mother’s unwavering faith in her, and ceases practising for the concert. The night before the concert, however, her mother accidentally reveals that she is having an affair with her daughter’s patron, and it is only as a favour to his lover that he has invited her daughter to perform. The daughter appears to applause the next evening wearing the gown her mother has bought her for this occasion and, instead of singing the advertised work, trills the words votre voisin, n’a-t-il qu’une maison? to the tune of a ditty she learned in childhood.
Tim Conley’s short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in various journals in seven countries. He is the author of two collections of short fiction, Whatever Happens (2006) and Nothing Could Be Further (2011), and a book of poetry, One False Move (2012).