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Authors: David Adams Richards

Mercy Among the Children

BOOK: Mercy Among the Children
Acclaim far David Adams Richards’
Winner of the 2000 Giller Prize
Nominee for the 2000 Governor General’s Award
Nominee for the 2000 Trillium Book Award
A Best Book of 2000,
The Globe and Mail
A Best Book of 2000,
Ottawa Citizen
“Richards is a painfully sharp observer, who possesses one of the most distinct and compelling voices in contemporary literature. In its depth of feeling and fierce drive,
Mercy Among the Children
makes even the best of contemporary novels seem forced and pallid.”
Toronto Star
“This throat-gripping novel by David Adams Richards displays an almost Faulknerian excess…. He conveys his moral vision so fiercely, and he addresses the question of how one should live with such urgent seriousness, that he simply sweeps away all objections. Read twenty pages and you’ll surrender to
Mercy Among the Children
—and to its language.”
The Atlantic Monthly
“Glitters with prose that evokes the beauty and harshness of the Maritimes.
Mercy Among the Children
is a contemporary masterpiece that, in the tradition of Tolstoy, Camus and Melville, reminds us that redemption is to be found in the suffering of innocents and that revenge ultimately is an empty act that can never satisfy the human craving for retribution.”
The Washington Post
“What other Canadian writer would think of describing a creek’s ‘laconic deep current’? What other novelist writes in a prose style of such knobby, uncanny, almost offhand strength? And who else can so well catch the pettiness and misery of the criminal mind, or the melancholy of a child’s longing for an absent parent, or the beauty and loneliness of the search for moral truth?
Mercy Among the Children
is a masterpiece.”
“David Richards is perhaps the greatest Canadian writer alive … although
Mercy Among the Children
is unrelentingly tragic, as with most great tragedies the undertone is one of boundless hope.”
Vancouver Sun
“A major novel precisely because it disavows concern for the structure of things in any one place in favour of the structure of things for all places and times. Literary fashions be damned; here is a fictional universe, fiercely imagined and brilliantly rendered, and everyone is welcome to it.”
Editor’s Choice,
The Globe and Mail

Mercy Among the Children
explores major issues with passion and high seriousness. It aims for the heart, not the head. If you give yourself to the experience of reading it, it will reward you.”
National Post

Mercy Among the Children
is a truly great book, a grand achievement, a masterpiece.”
Quill & Quire
“A wrenching, soaring read … It compels the reader to ponder the cruelty and grace of our relationship with each other and with an invisible unknowable God.”
Calgary Herald

To Robert Couture

Terrieux lived in a small apartment on the fourth floor of a rooming house in the south end of Saint John, New Brunswick. One day in November of 1997 a man was waiting for him in the entranceway. His name was Lyle Henderson. He had a watchful look — the kind that came, Terrieux suspected, from being big when young and having had bigger, older boys and men challenge him; or perhaps from being an adult to children when he was no more than a child himself.
He was about twenty-five, dressed in a white winter coat, blue sports jacket, and a pair of blue dress pants. He wore a ring on the index finger of his right hand, which could be used in any street fight and added to his appearance of a tavern bouncer.
Terrieux’s place was away from the city centre, among the newly renovated waterfront buildings and down a half-hidden alleyway, in an area that smelled of the docks and Irving pulp mill. There was a smell of diesel, and a shapeless conglomerate of depressed buildings and houses that ran off around a corner, where there was posted a Pepsi sign over an old convenience store, faded cigarette advertisements, and a newer advertisement for sanitary napkins. The door was open and cold air hung at the entrance.
Terrieux had retired as a police officer years ago, to join the Canadian navy. He had been a naval officer for some seven years. Then, feeling betrayed in a way by Canada, or by the failure of his marriage that came about because of his position, he had resigned and drifted to the States, where he had worked in New Orleans on the docks and in the Gulf of Mexico on an oil rig. He was heavy-set and strong enough that neither the work nor the rough life bothered him. He knew how to handle himself, something that showed on his face, the expression of which was an unapprehensive certainty in himself.
But, feeling displaced, he had come back to the Maritimes, with short stops in Virginia and Maryland, in 1995. His wife had gone years before, and was remarried to an accountant with W.P. and Maine. He sometimes saw her again and even now he felt a resentment from her that he would give anything to overcome. It was the sad look of a woman of forty-nine who had in her life dreams unfulfilled, and would blame forever her first love for this.
Now at fifty-seven he stood between fathers and their children, parolees and the parole board, a buffer between out-of-fashion men and those who wished to change the life of those men. He knew the men, because he was one of them. He knew the lives they led, lives no better or worse than others he had dealt with. And he was cynical of change in a way most intelligent people tend to be. That is, he was not cynical of change so much as cynical of those who would in fashion conscience alone commit themselves to it.
Lyle Henderson had a story to tell, perhaps about this very thing, and he was hoping Terrieux would listen. This was not an unusual request from the men that Terrieux knew, but was unusual for a boy of Lyle’s age and demeanour. The demeanour was something seen only in youth, a kind of hopefulness in spite of it all. In spite of the blast of misfortune that would crumble lives to powder. It seemed as if Lyle understood this, without benefit of much in his life. Perhaps while standing here in the doorway of the Empire Hotel he understood how much the man he was talking to had himself suffered. Perhaps they were reflections of each other, in youth and middle age, a mirror into the past and future of rural men caught in the world’s great new web.
Terrieux nodded, smiled, and invited Lyle upstairs.
Down below as they climbed toward the third landing they could see traffic and hear students getting on a bus to the university. The walls of the old wooden house, inside and out, were grey, with paint from a job done eleven years before. After a time they came to Terrieux’s small apartment at the back of the house.
In the yellow rooms with a portable television, a couch, and a few chairs scattered about the kitchen, Lyle’s face suddenly had a tenderness. To Terrieux it seemed a face that said it probably deserved much more tenderness than it had ever received and had given more also. Saying, even more, that tenderness was a commodity of valiant people. This is what Terrieux understood by Lyle’s look, which was almost, somehow, entirely compassionate.
“Did you ever hear of a man named Mat Pit —?” Lyle said, taking a deep breath. Or perhaps he took the breath just before he had asked (which would, Terrieux knew, give a different
for his breath).
“No,” Terrieux said, “I don’t think so.”
“He was my neighbour,” Lyle said, “when my brother and sister and I were growing up in our house in the Stumps.”
“I know where that is,” Terrieux said quickly.
The Stumps was a at of land in northeastern New Brunswick, along the great Miramichi River, which flowed out of the heavy forests into the Northumberland Strait, north of the western tip of Prince Edward Island. The Stumps was part of the vast and stunted spruce and brilliant-coloured hardwood that shadowed the salmon-teeming river as it widened into the Miramichi Bay. It had been settled first by Micmac Indians and then by displaced French, who hid during the British expulsion of the Acadians in 1756. The Irish — like Henderson — came half a century later, for some reason still loyal to a British crown that had pissed in their face. They worked the woods and cut the timber, and towns grew up along the great river that ran south and east almost to the top of the state of Maine. Its people were fiery, rough, and not without brilliance. It was the river where Terrieux had been a police officer years and years ago, when he himself was not only Lyle’s age but in height and colour looked exceptionally like that young man.
For a moment Lyle stared out at the old wooden docks of this largest industrial city in New Brunswick, part of the receding empire of British North America, quickly being swallowed whole by the more vigorous and certain empire to the south, so that the very name Empire Hotel took on a splendid quaintness for the detached, very unsplendid building in the fog.
“You were a police officer?” Lyle said.
“For six years.”
“It is a very strange thing — all that has happened since then — you know — with

“Oh — with who?” Terrieux smiled.
“I do not blame you,” Lyle said. “But if every moment and movement is in some way accounted for, no one knows what
killing someone sometimes does.”
“And who did I
kill?” Terrieux said, smiling cautiously, and glancing at the boy’s belt for a weapon while deciding which chair to thrust at the boy’s head — if required.
There was still the scent of the fire that burned a building across the street a few weeks ago. A certain smell of ash in the cold air.
The boy (for this is how Terrieux thought of most under thirty) thought for another second, and reached into one of his pockets. He laid a picture on the table.
“It’s — this,” he continued, his voice shaking just a little. “I am thinking — looking at this man, who I grew up beside —what would have happened had things been slightly different. If on that night long ago when he fell through the ice — on the east side of Arron Brook Pool — a place I have lain my coyote traps — and shot a bull moose with a nineteen-point rack — you let him sink. I never suspected that that man I sometimes shared my thoughts with could already have been buried if, well — not for you. And I know the peril you put him in that night by chasing him made you give up police work. For another moment he might well have drowned at sixteen. You see, he has taken advantage of us both.”
Lyle whispered this last phrase as Terrieux took the picture. Terrieux held the photograph out and looked at it. His eyes were going, and he took from his pocket bifocals and put them on cautiously, looked at Lyle and then at the picture again.
The man in the photo was wearing a jean jacket, with his hair combed back, his eyes like burning beads, and Terrieux quickly formed a mental picture of the sheer agony Mathew Pit must have caused others and himself.
being the word, since this young man was here with this picture, and not a soft young man either but a young man whose blow-by-blow encounter with life was etched upon his still young face.
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