Montréal: June 24, 1968.
Yann kept the dynamite in his coat closet. I smelled it as soon as he let me in.
“You weren’t joking,” I said, flipping the closet door wide, sweeping aside a couple of denim jackets and a woman’s long coat to expose the dusty cardboard box. “How much have you got here?”
Yann grinned. “You were not joking either, about having the nose of a bloodhound,” he said. “I didn’t think you could do it.”
“You owe me a drink,” I said, and ambled into his kitchenette to find one.
“There’s a flat in the refrigerator,” Yann said. “Take the whole thing. The others will want some too.”
The others I found waiting for us outside: a group of young men around Yann’s age, maybe ten of them, and one woman.
“Cé qui l’bloke?” someone muttered, and I heard from someone else, “C’tu un homme ou une femme?”
“Gus is our new blaster. She used to work in Joliette,” said Yann, and the men all nudged each other and raised their brows. The woman, though, she smiled at me, bright and quick, and I felt unfamiliar lightness cross my own face in return.
I balanced the flat on my knee and the woman—Marguerite—helped me hand out beers. A couple of the men stuffed extras in their jackets. I didn’t own a jacket right then, so I went bare-armed in the spicy evening air.
Walking up Rue Sherbrooke, I saw red and green election posters on porches, railings, balconies. Ahead I saw trees and a break in the skyline: Parc Lafontaine, with a reviewing stand for the parade to pass by, and a spread of lawn for anyone not important enough to be on the stand. The lawn was thick with people, dark heads jostling like otters thronging river-water.
“On est en retard,” said Yann. I saw one of the young men tilt his bottle back, throat working, and then he tucked the empty in his jacket.
I finished my own beer and kept my fingers wrapped loosely about the neck. Anticipation quickened in me.
From somewhere close ahead, I heard breaking glass.
We picked up our pace.
Then the voice of the crowd changed.
There’s a fight, and then there’s your fight. There’s a long floating moment before the one becomes the other. Sometimes you don’t want it, but it’s heading for you anyway, a train off the rails, and that long moment is where you have just enough time to flinch and not enough to run.
Sometimes, if you’re like me, you do want it, and that long moment is where you pick up speed.
This time, I missed that moment because my gaze was caught on Marguerite: her lips parting, her breastbone lifting, her body narrow and tight like a missile about to launch.
Yann flung his bottle at the stand. I saw the long arc of it, heard the dull explosion, saw shards scatter from the rail. Up there, I saw suited men with arms up, shielding, one cowering behind a chair, one standing upright, weight forward, fist raised in fury.
A big man knocked into me from the side, bounced off like I was made of granite. I saw one of Yann’s friends hefting another bottle. He was shouting. They were all shouting, hundreds of people were shouting. I didn’t know the words but I lifted my voice with theirs.
A waft of scent came over me and sweat sprang on me, sharp and delightful, like the moment when you see your lover’s skin bared to you. My hairs rose, my pores opened. Someone, someone nearby, was bleeding, and it was the best scent I knew in the world.
I felt my fingers tighten on the smooth glass neck of my own bottle. I spun it, swung my arm back, let fly.
I laughed with the smash of it, and the laugh burned in my throat, and then the wonderful blood-scent was lost in a rush of acrid gas.
My nostrils began to sting, my sinuses filled. Thin snot poured down over my upper lip. I saw other people in the crowd choking, burying their faces in their sleeves. A young boy nearby began to bawl.
Marguerite clutched at my arm.
“Tear gas,” I said. “Breathe slowly.” The words came out spittier than usual. I wiped my nose on the back of my hand.
“Les boeufs,” Marguerite said, pointing with her chin, blinking hard, eyes spilling over. I saw a row of smooth white helmets, forging into the crowd from the side. Heard blows, cries.
Flashes from beside the reviewing stand: cameras, maybe. I turned to see. The crowd surged against me. I stumbled with it, even my strength no match for the push of thousands. Marguerite caught at me, but without the press of the other people around us we would have fallen. We were carried forward a few feet. I got my arm around her, hand tangling in her tumbled hair and cushioning her head.
Lights flickered in my streaming eyes. Marguerite broke away from me as the crowd thinned out again. She seized something from the ground, flung it. I followed, found another bottle, threw.
Not enough to sate my hunger. I could barely hear the shatter. Muscles strung tight over my shoulders and twined around the bones of my arms, aching for impact. My mouth flooded with stinging spit.
Someone knocked against me from behind and I spun, gladly, already lunging for a soft throat—
I was sitting on a curb. Cold.
I was cold.
Someone warm next to me. I leaned in close.
She was speaking, sobbing. Someone else, a man, spoke over her.
“What?” I said.
“Elle ne comprend pas. D’mandes-y en Anglais …”
“Ma’am … miss? Do you require medical attention?” A bright light in my eyes.
“Am I bleeding?” I said. “Am I bleeding anywhere?”
“Your head.” Whisper-light touch.
I flinched away. “Don’t! I’m not safe.” I couldn’t tell if the words came out clear but he lowered his hand.
“Go to the triage tent over there,” said the man, shining the light away from me. I saw his white helmet then, and his gun.
He moved on to another person a few feet down the curb. I coughed and spat. My mouth tasted of tear gas.
I looked at the person beside me. Long hair plastered to wet cheeks.
“Marguerite,” I said.
“Close, for an Anglo,” she said, with a watery laugh. “Come on, let’s get you fixed up. Yann can do stitches.”
“I’ll do it myself,” I said.
She rolled her eyes a little, but stood up. I did too. It wasn’t easy.
I followed her past a row of white-helmeted police, clusters of people holding towels to bloodied heads, a few lying on the ground.
“When did this … ah, shit,” I said, stumbled, and grabbed at her shoulder.
“Easy,” she said. “Someone hit you with a brick.”
“Oh. Did I hit him back?”
She nodded. Face bright with emotion I couldn’t name, Marguerite yet another language I didn’t speak.
“I think you saved my life,” she said.
I stood there, blood sliding down my cheek. Even my own tongue deserted me for a moment, Marguerite dizzyingly lit by the red and white flashes from the cruiser nearby.
“Gus?” she said. “T’é tu correcte?”
“Did you make this happen?” I said.
“The people in power made this happen,” she said. “La crisse de police made this happen. Pierre Trudeau made this happen, up on his stupid stage.”
“Hey. I know.” I thumbed the traces of tears from under her eyes. Her cheeks were streaked with salt.
“Thank you for helping us,” she said, her voice breaking partway through. And she kissed me on the cheek, the one that wasn’t bloody.
That kiss sealed it. I’ve fought for a hundred different causes—almost anything will do, so long as I get to fight. But I’ve only cared about a handful.
She helped me slip away past the triage tent, over pavement gritty with broken glass, past people wandering in miserable circles calling out to each other in confusion.
It was like the aftermath of any other battle, except that she was holding my hand.
“I’ve done this before,” I said. “Lots.” I splashed a gauze pad with alcohol and started at the top. A scar extended from my temple down my cheek; the fresh injury had split a deeper branch from my hairline to the end of my eyebrow.
“Lots,” Marguerite echoed, not quite a question.
I probably shouldn’t have said that. I stuck the tip of my tongue between my teeth and kept it there while I leaned over Yann’s bathroom sink, letting the blood run down my cheek and drip off the point of my chin instead of into my mouth the way I would have done if I’d been alone.
The blood-slick fingers of my left hand let the edges of the cut slip awry a couple of times but then I got it close enough and fed the needle through. My eye flinched and watered.
I ran a few stitches in a continuous locking pattern because I never liked the feeling of tying off and cutting the thread.
Marguerite hovered behind me. “Steady,” she said.
I tied off. Snipped the ends with a pair of sewing scissors Yann had pulled out from somewhere. No matter how careful, you can’t avoid tugging during that part. I dropped the scissors into the sink and breathed hard for a moment, the effort of controlling myself grown greater against the landscape of pain.
Marguerite reached for the bloody scissors. I elbowed her hand away, roughly. “Don’t touch. Wipe your hands.”
I tossed her an alcohol-dampened paper towel, used more alcohol to wipe down the sink and the scissors and my face. The injury was still seeping a little when I had it clean, so I slapped a gauze pad over it and ripped off a couple of strips of tape to hold it in place.
Marguerite wrapped her arms around my waist from behind, and looked over my shoulder to meet my eyes in the mirror.
I stood as still as I could, feeling my brows draw down, the tape pulling at the little hairs on my skin.
“Stop that,” she said. “Stop making that face. You look like a devil.”
But though she was shivering, she didn’t let me go.
Yann came in just before noon. He looked like hell, still wearing yesterday’s clothes, hair greasy and peaked where he’d been tugging his hand through it.
“Gus,” he said. “I tried to find you at Station 4. Patrick thought he saw les boeufs talking to you.”
“They thought I was a civvie,” I said, gesturing at my torn face.
Yann laughed drily. “You’re an Anglo. You are a civvie.”
I wasn’t a civvie by anyone’s definition, in any country in the world, but I couldn’t exactly tell him that. I shook my head, and didn’t argue.
By the time Marguerite arrived, paper grocery bag on her hip, Yann had taken me through an accounting of all of his friends and their whereabouts. Some of them, he had seen with his own eyes being taken from the paddy wagons at Station 4; he had been there all night, waiting for a chance to speak with someone, but no one in the holding cells was being allowed visitors. There were a few names unaccounted-for still.
“Most of the injured went to St-Luc,” Marguerite said. “I’ll go see who I can find.”
“I’ll come with you,” I said.
“They’ll want to admit you once they see the job you did on your face,” she said. “Stay here and sleep, niaiseuse.”
Marguerite came back alone. I heard the door and rose, but before I’d got more than a couple of steps from the couch, she arrowed into me, squeezing me around the waist and tucking her head under my chin.
I embraced her in return. Her shoulderblades felt narrow and fragile and I kept my grip as light as I knew how. I thought her face was wet.
“Antoine won’t be coming tonight,” she said.
“Why, isn’t he … oh,” I said. “He’s in the hospital, isn’t he?”
She nodded against my neck.
“Is he going to be okay?”
She shook her head. “A brick hit him too, only he isn’t … what do you call it, what you are?”
My heart startled like a spooked deer. I felt my arms tighten around her. I did not want to have that conversation.
“… you know,” she was saying. “Un boxeur, a boxer, only female.”
Blood pounded through me, relief replacing alarm so rapidly I felt myself floating.
“I figured it out when I saw you in the fight,” she went on. “I did not know there were lady boxers. Anyway Antoine is very bad, his head is not so hard as yours …”
“Câlisse!” She grabbed me tighter as I wavered. “Maybe yours is not so hard either,” she added, stroking my cheek below the bandage.
I sat where she put me. She nestled beside me and sighed, “Tomorrow is the election, and Trudeau is going to win. We all know it. We will have to fight back, and now that you …”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be up for it,” I said. It was only the truth, but she thought it was bravery, and I liked her too much to set her straight.
I looked inside, and saw why: crystals frosted the waxed paper coating.
“You know this stuff isn’t stable,” I said.
“It’s all we have. Respire par le nez.”
“Did you just say something about my nose?”
Yann only laughed, and sent me out the door.
I walked, because I didn’t feel like taking a taxi with a bag of dynamite: even I would have a long recovery from that kind of accident. The July heat felt electric on my skin. I barely remembered not to swing the bag as I strolled along Rue Saint-Denis. Some of the houses and flats on the side streets still bore fading election signs. The red candidate had been the winner; I forgot his name already, though I remembered it was French. I thought, because of that, my friends would have been happy to see him in power, but they said he was not one of theirs.
Politics matters as much as ever, when you’re my age. Only it gets harder to tell the politicians apart, and easier to see through them.
This is what I was thinking when I found my target, and then I began to laugh: they had sent me to bomb a liquor store.
The employees were on strike. I knew this; I had tried to buy liquor, and been denied.
Government-run liquor stores seemed to me a great injustice, but to Yann and Marguerite, the plight of their workers was more so.
The building was empty and locked. I only had to worry about passers-by. My nature does not care who it hurts, but my nature is not all of me.
I’d done this before at the mine, and before that, in the service of two different militaries. But this dynamite was old and volatile. I sweated until I had it safely out of the bag.
I placed the blasting caps, peeled off my explosive-dusted gloves and dropped them there, lit the fuse, and withdrew: a smooth and calm stride onward the way I’d already been heading, and then across the street at an angle, to admire the arrangement of cheese in a shop window that offered a perfect reflection.
I counted the seconds in my head. Arrived at the window with four to spare.
Only I must’ve counted slow, because it went off right then. I flinched like everyone else on the street. Spun and saw a plume of smoke at the side of the liquor store.
Saw a pair of elderly ladies shy away. One of them stumbled and both fell.
I crossed the street and helped them up. “Merci, merci,” they said. One was weeping. I felt like a bit of an asshole.
But then the gas line went up, and I got to watch the fireball.
I dynamited more liquor stores and a couple of factories. The picketing workers didn’t always look pleased with our support, but the papers loved a bombing, and Marguerite laughed with delight at every column inch.
One of the liquor stores I hit, I broke into first. I twisted the loading-dock chain in my hands until it snapped, and lifted the roll-door a couple of feet to slide beneath it.
Marguerite, standing watch, was staring at me, eyes and mouth round, when I looked back. I grinned and made a show of dusting off my hands. Then I noticed the mechanism I probably should have used to raise the door.
I grabbed the nearest two cases, one in each arm, and handed them out to Marguerite. Then she passed me my dynamite.
Ninety seconds after I came out, we were still standing there behind the shop, arguing about what to do with the whiskey.
The plate glass blew. I heard the huff of the explosion and the rain of shards in the empty side lot. I tore open one of the cases, thrust two bottles inside Yann’s borrowed jacket, and tossed Marguerite up and over the stone wall bordering the lot. I followed her over and landed in someone’s back garden, nearly on top of Marguerite, who was laughing, both hands clapped over her mouth.
We unlatched the garden gate and strolled away through the residential streets, hearing the sirens approaching up Rue Sherbrooke, one, two, more. I uncapped one of my bottles and filled my mouth with heat.
Marguerite leaned in to sniff. “Is that cognac?”
“Nothing but the best for the friends of the revolution,” I said, and I lifted her slight weight up on my back and jogged her through the street like a child, both of us whooping with laughter.
When I set her on her feet before the downstairs door of Yann’s flat, she ran her fingers through my cropped hair, past the scarring, and then over my brows. “J’ai l’goût d’te pèter une moche,” she said, and I didn’t know what that meant, but I found out when her mouth pressed to mine.
When Antoine got out of the hospital, he spoke with a stammer, accompanied by a flickering eyelid and a nod of his head. He went to live with his mother.
Yann visited him there, and came back quiet, furious and dark-eyed. He and I and Marguerite sat on mismatched chairs around the kitchen table and shared the last of the cognac. Yann did not speak until his glass was empty, and then he said, “On top of everything, to see one of our own ruined …”
“And our own city at war with itself,” said Marguerite, hand to her forehead. “La police standing against children who only want to learn in their own language.” She was weeping, I saw, slow furious tears.
Yann set his hands flat on the table. “We must increase the pressure if we want to see Le Québec Libre.”
“I heard one of the other cells just stole three hundred sticks of dynamite from that construction yard on Ile Jésus,” Marguerite said.
Yann took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “These little bombs, we’ve been placing them for years. What do we get? Raids, retaliation, people hit with bricks.” His gesture was toward Antoine’s home, I thought; he had already forgotten I’d been hit with one too. Better so. “We need to make a stronger point.”
“City Hall,” Marguerite said. “Straight for the heart of the corruption.”
“City Hall workers aren’t on strike,” I pointed out. “The building won’t be empty.”
“We’ll make an anonymous call,” Marguerite said, turning to me, her face beginning to lighten. “We’ll tell them where to find the dynamite. They’ll have to evacuate, and no one will be hurt. It will be even better than usual—they’ll turn out the bomb squad, and you can blend in with the crowd and watch everyone scurry like rats.”
She squeezed my hand in her excitement, poured the rest of her cognac into my glass, and pushed it toward me.
I took the glass and drained it. I haven’t been on this earth for so long without learning to see when I’m being manipulated, but it was good cognac.
City Hall was a copper-roofed monstrosity with tiers of arched windows. I strolled up to it with my hands sunk deep in my pockets, dynamite in a cloth bookbag over my shoulder. We’d used up the old stuff already; Yann had restocked the closet with fresh sticks in crisp waxed wrappers and so I didn’t have to walk like a waiter trying not to spill an overfull tray of drinks.
The day was cool for summer. Yann had given me a castoff jacket of his, canvas, boxy, with pale construction dust worked deep into the fibres. In it, I looked like a boy, a labourer, but when I pointed out the police were looking for young male workers with bags of explosives, both Marguerite and Yann laughed at me, and said all I had to do to persuade anyone of my innocence was open my mouth.
I spent twenty minutes ambling around the perimeter while the sun threw my stocky shadow on the cobbles. I sat on the edge of the fountain before the hall for a couple of minutes, watching people move up and down the stairs, pigeons gather and scatter and gather again.
I’d arrived early, and I still had a good half-hour before Marguerite would make the call. I wanted to choose carefully for this one: the placement of the dynamite would have to look like I’d been serious, even though the fuses would never be lit.
I wouldn’t be able to get inside, not without being stopped and searched. I chose one site on the flank of the building, at the base of a tall expanse of windows that seemed to look in on an assembly chamber of some kind.
The other I placed behind a bank of shrubbery just to the right of the front steps, where the majority of the pedestrians came and went. A blast here would crack the magnificent stonework, maybe send some of it airborne, and light all of that summer-dry shrubbery into torches. People nearby would be knocked down the steps, or hit with chunks of masonry.
Once I’d set the sticks in place, attached the blasting caps and laid the fuses, I threw away the bag I’d used to carry everything, and retreated to a cheap cafe on the far side of the square, where I took off my jacket and cap to reveal a fitted blouse of Marguerite’s and my own fluffy pale curls. The loiterer around City Hall was a worker, a lad. I was a woman, a bit mannish, but Montréal was growing more tolerant of such things.
I ordered a beer and a plate of fried potatoes and settled in.
A half hour went by, and it came to me that I did not hear any sirens approaching. I did not see people streaming out of the exits of City Hall, or reporters running out from their cars, or anyone moving quickly at all—
—except for a slight figure, walking fast, from the west flank of the building away along the edge of the square.
She had not made the anonymous call. She had come here, instead, to light the fuses. I should have known she meant to cause harm. I, who knew violence in all its costumes.
I dropped my glass and ran outside.
The dynamite blew before I made it past the fountain.
I took a long way back to Yann’s, in case anyone had noticed me. Marguerite arrived before me, in enough time to take off the black jacket she’d been wearing, and let her hair down from within the confining cap.
She and Yann were at the table, heads together over a bottle of wine, listening to the radio announcer.
“—breaking news on the explosion at City Hall,” the voice said. “More violence from the FLQ today, with one detonation and the city’s bomb squad called out to disarm a second device. René Lalonde is on the scene with a report—”
Marguerite reached over to switch it off when she saw me.
“How many injuries?” I said.
“I want to hear it from them. Turn it back on.”
She was backing away from me, overturning her chair, hands out. “I didn’t know we were going to do it. Really, Gus, we just decided after you left, it needed to be a bigger—ah, stop, you’re hurting my arm—”
Yann grabbed at my wrist. “Gus, wait, Gus, we both agreed …”
I spun and broke his nose.
Turned back to Marguerite, hand still clamped around her thin bicep. She slapped my face with her free hand. “Stop! Stop!”
“How many injuries?” I said again, shaking her.
“Only one bad one,” she said. “A custodian. Only the one.”
She was sobbing. Wasn’t trying to hit me again. Neither was Yann, who sat at the table, hand cupped over his nose, trickles of bright blood between his fingers. He smelled too good, but as long as they both held still I could keep myself in check.
“An innocent,” I said, my voice tight and high in my own ears. “One of the workers you love to call your comrades. Is he going to live?”
Marguerite shook her head. She slumped in my grasp, face buried against my collarbone.
“That’s on you,” I said. Forced my fingers to unclench. “That’s on both of you.”
Marguerite, feeling my grip relax, raised her arms and wound them around me, still sobbing, damp hair sticking to my neck. She whispered something that might have been an apology.
I shoved her away. She fell, lay sprawled on the floor, curled into herself. Yann made to rise.
“Stay down,” I said.
They did. Marguerite breathed in shallow gasps, eyes closed.
I took the bottle of wine and the little radio off the table, and made myself walk out.
It was on me, too. I knew that. It always is.
I got over my anger with Yann quickly. I put his radio in a box and mailed it back to him, no note.
I got over my anger with Marguerite less quickly. It wasn’t fair of me. She had only seen what I was, and used me as far as I let her.
I had seen what she was, too: at the Parc, when she thrilled to the sound of breaking glass.
No—even earlier. I had seen what she was in that very first moment outside Yann’s flat, when she thrilled to the sight of me. Me, in my work clothes stiff with the residue of powder; me, grown volatile with age as dynamite does. I should have known to run from anyone who would not run from me.
It’s in my nature, violence; it’s on my back closer than a shirt. It’s in my nature to hate it, also, and to turn from it, when I can.
I watched the news for months, years even. Never saw a mention of Yann or Marguerite; maybe I did see one or two of the others, but half of them were named either Pierre or André and I had forgotten all of their surnames already. Saw more bombings, more riots; two kidnappings, a murder; the Prime Minister declaring martial law.
It looked like a failure to me then, their cause. But fires smoulder underground, sometimes. Fuses don’t snuff easily, I have reason to know.
Sticks of dynamite, piled on each other, leak their contents over time until the very ground is saturated, ready to ignite.