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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Bull

Haunting Saint Henri

IF I were to haunt a place, to worry back and forth in echo of the motions of my life, I would skirt, ad infinitum, the path that cuts along the length of the railway tracks off de Courcelle until the underpass at de Linelle. 

If you can choose what to haunt, I would take that quarter-mile jag of Saint Henri and own it, spectrally. The Fattal Loft squatters, the newly yuppified condo dwellers walking two and two plus Golden Labradoodle, the people in the Wednesday AM lineup snaking out of the Old Brewery Mission, the pairs of laughing girls in their flowing West African finest, any of them, others—the single dad with his kids propped on his front-wheel bike basket, the elderly woman with her shaggy German Shepherd—they might say, at twilight, when night bends across the spaghetti highways, that they’d felt a draft, a chill, a presence, and it would be me they’d perceived, me out on ghost patrol, wafting between them, disembodied, sure, but glad. Maybe gladder that way than I am now, weighted by my body, aged thirty-six, an intermittent visitor of the wayside railroad shortcut to the metro. 

(What does a ghost wear? Something secondhand, obviously, my best, best getup, my most awesome vintage-find dress and lipstick that would never fade.)

As ghost-me, I’d hang in the industrial beauty clinging to the smells of dew-wet grasses; the fields of clover; the reverberating clamour-chug of trains, three engines deep, hauling double-decked containers loaded with cars, or waste, or metal. And I wouldn’t mind the rhythmic wait, the train’s interruption of movement or thought, because I’d never attempt to cross the tracks. I’d only haunt the path alongside it. I wouldn’t ask for much. Just that path. 

Alive, I’m there most days. Mornings I hurry by, grateful for this expanse but, each time, finding it longer than I remembered. I turn right off the street onto the paved walkway, step between the young elms and the familiar spruce, look out at the goldenrod and milkweed, the rusty tracks, take in big breaths of the dusty smell of copper mixed with mown grass, the back of Saint Zotique, its two belfries cutting the highest vantage in the sky, marking its convexity, maybe holding it up. If I were a biblical writer I’d throw around a word like "verily" to underline that image. Because verily, the sky is bigger there than most places in Montreal. It is.

I never walk the walkway without feeling a strong kick of joy, which is of course why it’s so ritualized for me. I’ve felt it since I first moved to Saint Henri, when I was fifteen and my mother bought her shack on the side of the tracks with a $2000 deposit. Saint Henri was rougher then, and difficult to navigate. But I felt I’d discovered this piece of land. It was the city’s and communal, a no-man’s-land, a terrain vague, but no less mine. It was the first part of our neighbourhood I loved, and my happiness at discovering it doesn’t dissipate.

Evenings, after a day at my office, I weave between the dog walkers, the kids playing catch, past the halfway house men chucking horseshoes near the makeshift park. Often there’s a freight train, sometimes two. I’ll sit on a concrete block and watch them clatter by, all cadhugcadhug cadhug cadhug, steel grating steel, the whine, the alarm bells at the crosswalk, the cars idling on either side and their surprisingly patient drivers. They’re not agitated. They don’t honk. They just watch.

Once, sitting there, I saw a squirrel on a branch, eating chips from a bag. Salt and Vinegar. 

On my walks home I think about how I’m in Montreal, but also out of Montreal, between the rows of new elms, the spruce, the homeless people’s pit bulls, the flowering trees bent like a bridal bower, the ground carpeted with odorous crushed trumpets of their rotting flowers. City out of city. 

If the trains look too long to wait out, I sometimes follow the path where it continues on the other side of de Courcelle. It’s gravelly, and it strays through hobo lands and militant comeuppant gardens. It’s wilder here, more overgrown. You can feel the way the countryside breathes in the crux of this industrial wasteland, by all the underpasses leading to graffitied, broken highways and below the storied, star-ship-like construction of the super hospital over on Saint Jacques. Before they started building the hospital there were still more open spaces up there. It was still a hill, and by the car dealership there were guard dogs whose larynxes had been removed. They threw themselves at the fences coughing out strangled, muted barks. They too haunted, though they were living. Barely.

The dogs can keep the hill.

I just want my path.

I’d haunt my path in every season. In winter, when it’s icy and difficult to tread, I’d skate it, skid it, scrape it. In winter, the ground’s all-over white, the fields unploughed, and only the two sets of railway tracks demark the grey and white landscape’s ground from sky. The belfries, too, stand stark. In winter it’s too dark to walk safely at night since the path is caked thick with ice. In winter the unbelievably intemperate cold gusts here. But I still love it. 

Last summer, I strayed off the path for the first time, walked right along the tracks past the underpass on de Linelle. It was a Thursday morning. I’d left for work very early, an hour or so earlier than usual. I saw two large birds circle in the sky over me. I thought: falcons, ducks, geese. And then the two blue herons landed, one on either track, just a few feet in front of me. I watched them bend their pterodactyl wings and shift their weight from leg to leg to leg to leg. One was slightly larger than the other. One was bluer. There is no water here, and never before have I seen herons on this stretch. They stayed a few beats, then flew off together, southward, on the way to the Lachine Canal, maybe.

Two days later I got a call that my dad had collapsed. I wasn’t surprised. I felt as if the herons had come to tell me. They’d spooked me in my natural habitat and spoken ghost to me and I’d mulled their sighting superstitiously for meaning until it came.

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