On an evening in late May, Martin Bigras and his new friend Carl Barnet arrived at a train station in Munich, disembarked and went straight to the nearest beer hall. After a few lagers each, they started talking with a group of fox hunters who would break conversation every fifteen minutes to snort lines of fine powdered tobacco from the backs of their hands, poured from a discreet red container labelled FC Bayern München.
“We have a custom,” one of them said, “where we smear the b—how do you say it?”
“Das blut,” another said. “The blood.”
“Right, the blood of the fox. We smear the blood on the face of the newest hunter. We have not done that for a long time, not since we were very young.”
Something about that made them all laugh together.
“Tomorrow morning,” the third one said. “You’ll come with us. We’ll shoot you a beautiful new scarf.”
Martin and Carl were tour guides at Vimy Ridge, hired on by the Canadian government for a student work placement program. On a normal day, they would get into a small white van provided by Veteran Affairs and drive down the Rue des Artilleurs Canadiens and then up theRoute des Canadiens and into the empty pastures where the memorial had been built. The ground all around Vimy boiled and rolled where artillery shells had exploded a hundred years before. Nobody was permitted to walk on the battlefield because of the undetonated shells hidden beneath the surface, and there were only a few paths that were deemed safe for tourists to use to explore the grounds.
Veteran Affairs owned a flock of sheep that ate the grass in these unsafe areas and kept it from growing long and untidy. It had been decades since the last time a gas canister rose to the surface, brought up by the moving and shifting of the earth. It was gnawed open by some of the sheep, killing almost a dozen of them within minutes, and the entire area had to be evacuated.
This was one of the stories Martin told English-speaking tourists as he guided them through the trenches and around the great white limestone columns and statues of the memorial. He would point out small carvings in the chalk walls of the underground tunnels on the Canadian side of the battlefield: inscriptions of significant dates, the names and ranks of soldiers, the counting of days by harsh lines scratched into groups of fives.
Every second week, Martin’s guide group would have a four-day break. They were encouraged to use these to visit the neighbouring countries and the parts of France they hadn’t seen.
It was their first long weekend in May and Martin had not known Carl for long. He knew that Carl was studying international business, and that he was active in a fraternity at the University of Western Ontario. “Greek life,” Carl had told him on their first day at work, “is the closest you can get to a university-sanctioned fuck fest.”
Martin himself was studying urban planning at Waterloo. He lived off campus in a bungalow that his family had inherited from his deceased grandfather—far away from any fucking that was going on at his university.
In Munich, after a few more drinks with the fox hunters at the beer hall, the two of them left and checked into their hostel.
“What do you think?” Carl said. He stretched out on the top bunk and picked his toes.
“They could be killers,” Martin said.
“They could be. Who can say?”
“All I know is I don’t want to shoot anything.”
“What’s the point of going hunting unless you at least plan to shoot something?”
“I just don’t want to do it.”
“Well, do you even want to go?” Carl asked.
“Yes, for the experience or whatever.”
“You’re doing it wrong, Martin. You don’t go and try something new, but ask for it to be tailored to you.”
Martin closed his eyes and said, “Let’s just both agree not to do any shooting.”
The following morning, the Germans picked them up and they drove into the countryside that was varying shades of deep green, all pooling at the feet of the snow-veined Bavarian Alps. They outfitted Martin and Carl in hiking boots and long green canvas jackets with leather shoulder patches. Together, followed by a pack of dogs, they walked through fields of tall grass and meadows of short grass.
Hunting with the dogs, the men told them, was not permitted in Germany anymore, not for a long time. But this was their land—had been for hundreds of years—and they were not about to stop using the dogs to track the foxes.
The group entered a forest made up of so many different kinds of trees that Martin felt he was seeing a new species every time he raised his eyes. Eventually, they came into a clearing and built a small fire. They sat in a circle and drank from metal flasks and breathed the powdered brown tobacco up their noses. Once everyone was warm and drunk, they loaded their rifles and sat on stumps facing out towards the edge of the clearing.
The Germans let their scent hounds loose and they ran off into the thick wood. Their yelps and barks became fainter and fainter as they went further into the forest. A hush fell over the men in the clearing.
“So,” one of the Germans said, “what brings you young Canadians to Germany?”
“Is it not obvious?” another said. “They come for die Häschen. The little playgirls.”
“It’s our long weekend,” Carl said. “We’re students working for the summer in France.”
“I guess we thought it’d be a fun thing to do,” Martin said.
One of the hunters raised his hand and held a finger to his lips. The dogs could be heard coming back towards the camp, their barking growing louder again. Just as it sounded like they were going to break back into the clearing, a fox—bright orange and slender, legs springing in unison—bounded out of the brush to the right of Carl.
The fox darted back and forth in front of them while Martin stayed still with his rifle on his lap. Carl raised his gun, rested the stock on his shoulder and looked down the sight. One of the Germans fired and missed, dirt kicking up where his bullet struck the ground.
Two of the dogs shot back into the clearing. They barked and snapped their jaws at the fox, but it evaded them with its quick cuts left and right.
“Schieben!” one of the Germans yelled. “Shoot it!”
Martin stayed still and stiff with the gun on his lap. Carl looked him in the eye. Then he returned his focus to the rifle-sight. But before he could take his shot, the fox took off back into the forest. They did not see or hear another one after that.
On Martin’s days off, there wasn’t much to do in Arras besides eat and drink, or visit the markets and local shops to find things to eat and drink. Most of the buildings were made in the Spanish-Flemish style, with roofs of red ceramic tiles that peaked in strange round shapes at the front. On the weekends, vendors set up booths in the Place des Héros, a large square overlooked by the cathedral and its looming gothic spire. Martin bought rotisserie chickens and fresh produce and small handmade things to take back home to his family.
Through the window in his bedroom, he watched the streets of the university town that became quiet and empty during the summer months when most of the students travelled or returned home to be with their families. Martin and Carl shared a flat across from a small café where they went to eat and drink and talk at all hours. Day and night, people came and went from the restaurant carrying brown paper bags. Nobody ever sat down in the restaurant to eat, it seemed, except for Martin and Carl.
Martin had seen the people picking up the bags from inside the restaurant as well. They would approach the counter, exchange a few words with one of the waiters or the man he had come to recognize as the owner, and then take an unmarked bag from the cashier’s counter and walk straight out the door.
After a night at the Australian-themed brasserie in the nearby square, both Martin and Carl had slept in late and missed the market. They had met a group of Belgian tourists—a jazz band of blonde men and women with willowy features, strange in the way they all looked alike, from a college a few hours north—and stayed up with them well into the morning. Martin was growing hungry, sitting in his bed, staring out the window at the people coming and going from the café across the street.
He convinced Carl to come with him and take a table near the back. The two of them had a habit of walking in and seating themselves and nobody there seemed to mind. The walls inside were made of thick stone and mortar and it was cool in the dark corner of the restaurant.
The owner came with a pitcher of water and two glasses. “For you,” he said, “les Canadiens.”
They thanked him and opened their menus, though they knew them by heart and always ordered the same. The owner went to replace the water pitcher on the cashier’s counter and returned to their table right away.
“It is your national day today, isn’t it?” he said.
It was. The day before it had been June and now it was the first of July. There was a ceremony being held at the memorial, though they were fortunate enough to have the weekend off.
“We must celebrate,” he said. “Your people have done a great thing here, in this part of the country—in Arras. Don’t think we have forgotten.”
Martin and Carl nodded. They were used to this kind of national praise so close to Vimy, and especially at the memorial.
“How would you like to celebrate?” he said. “Tell me what I can do for you.”
They ordered their usual—steak frites and a pint of beer each—and knew they were probably going to eat for free.
As they sat and waited for their food and drinks, another patron entered the restaurant and approached the counter. The owner came from the kitchen and gestured at him to follow. The two of them went into the kitchen and out of sight.
“Where should we go to next?” Martin asked Carl from across the table.
“Let’s go to Belgium.”
“But it’s so close to here. It’ll feel like we never left.”
“They like us in Belgium. We’ve had good luck with Belgium so far.”
Martin sipped his water. “I want to go to Scandinavia and see the fjords.”
“And the women,” Carl said. “You want to see the women.”
“Sure, and them.”
“I hear they’re beautiful—maybe too beautiful. If it’s true, I don’t know if I actually want to go there. That sort of thing throws me for a loop.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“It turns me upside down, that sort of thing. If the women are anything like they say they are, I won’t know up from down or left from right.”
The person who had come into the restaurant earlier emerged from the kitchen, laughing and shaking hands with the owner. He walked out the door with a brown paper bag in hand.
“I wouldn’t even want to fuck them,” Carl said. “No, not even that. It would be too much. Seeing women that beautiful puts me in a bad way. Let’s not go to Scandinavia.”
The owner reappeared from the kitchen. He carried two plates on one arm and two pints in the other hand. “This is our treat,” he said. “Pour les Canadiens.”
Martin thanked him in French.
He began to walk away, but turned around. “Pardon,” he said, “but you are two very handsome young men. How would you like to be in a movie?”
Martin looked across the table at Carl, and then back up at the owner of the restaurant.
“We are making a movie, right here. I think both of you would be perfect. We need more handsome men like you. I promise it will be a good time for everyone.” He gestured back to the kitchen entrance.
One of the waiters stood in the doorway. He was looking at them and kissing the neck of a young woman, a waitress. She lifted her blouse and exposed her bare breasts to them.
Martin looked back at Carl, but his eyes were still fixed on the kitchen.
“I don’t think we can be in your movie,” Martin said.
“It would be a shame,” said the owner.
“Now just wait,” said Carl. “This looks like a fun little project.”
“Carl,” Martin said.
“You will both be very famous,” said the owner.
“I’m not being in your movie,” said Martin.
“Me? I think I’ll join you,” Carl said. “What’s my part?”
“Magnifique!” the man said. “Come with me and we’ll discuss this immediately. We’ll make your friend very sorry he could not join us.”
The owner put his hand on Carl’s shoulder and guided him from the table and into the kitchen where the waiter and the waitress were waiting for them. Martin was not going to sit there in the restaurant by himself and wait for them to be done. He left out the backdoor of the dining area to get some air.
The alley behind the building smelt of cooking oil and wet cobblestone. A cook was emptying out a garbage bin into a metal drum. Martin leaned against the cold bricks of the wall and folded his arms.
The cook finished with the garbage and turned around. Martin startled him, but he settled down and nodded, waved Martin over to where he was standing.
The cook lit up a cigarette as Martin approached him and exhaled, offered one from his small red pack. Martin shook his head. The cook took another drag and motioned towards a tall plastic bucket on the ground to his right.
Inside the bucket were two small mice, no larger than a chestnut each, scratching at the walls of the container with their tiny pink fingers. They climbed on top of one another and paced around in circles. The whiskers on their noses trembled like sharp blades of thin dry grass.
“From the café?” Martin asked him. He gestured in the direction of the doorway.
The cook nodded his head, oui.
“I can take them for you,” Martin said. “I’ll let them go in the garden by the church.”
The cook only stared at him.
“Le jardin,” Martin said. “L’église.”
The cook looked down at the mice. “Non, pardon,” he said. “We kill them.” Then he splashed a pitcher of water into the bucket.
Martin turned away. He faced the doorway but did not go in. Instead, he walked down the alley and into the street.
Martin walked around Arras for close to three hours. He stopped for a drink at a gastropub inPlace des Héros. Then he went to the edge of town and explored the ruined church they drove past every day on their way to work. It had been partially destroyed during one of the wars—though he didn’t know which.
He returned that evening to an empty flat. All of the window shades were pulled shut. He sat down in the leather couch and turned on the television before falling asleep.
Martin awoke to the sound of the front door being closed. Carl stood in the dark, taking off his shoes. He held himself straight with one hand on the bannister, a brown paper bag in the other.
“Qu’elle surprise,” Carl said. He walked over, slumped down into the couch and placed the bag on the coffee table.
“And how was it?” Martin said.
“Martin, I’ll tell you. Écoute-moi. You haven’t lived until you’ve been in one of these french films.” Carl reached into the paper bag and pulled out a VHS tape.
“It’s on a tape?”
“You bet it is. That’s how they do it, I guess. They say the tapes preserve the integrity of the work. Like music on vinyl or cassettes, you know? Let’s have a look, yeah?”
“I don’t want to watch your tape.”
“Be a good friend, Martin. Don’t you want to support me?”
Martin made to stand but Carl placed his hand on his leg and held him down.
“I learnt some new tricks. Let me show you how it’s done.”
Carl pushed himself up and went over to the television, crouched down and fumbled with the old VCR. “Just you wait,” he said, “just you wait.” He slid the tape in, set the channel to a blank screen and pressed play.