He is a man in Canada, but he is not a Canadian man. Perhaps he is from some other country on the continent, but until he opens his mouth, until he says something, it remains hard to know. He has a wife, for she has told us (loudly) that she is, as though the occasion of their marriage served as her graduation to some new kind of profession. And it is the wife, standing in the middle of Quebec City (as indeed we all are) who has just told us he is not Canadian.
"Can you guess where he's from? Originally, I mean. Just by looking at him, can you guess?"
Well, no, we all think. No, we can't. But we know where you're from. You're from the Land of the Noisy Queens Woman, and it's very fortunate indeed that you weren't born in the Middle Ages, because the peasants there would have suffered all the more so and times, after all, were tough enough. This is what we're thinking.
The man coughs and, involuntarily, we bend our ears towards the little information his throat has just given us. But no, nothing. We begin ruling out places from which a cough can be considered distinctive. Paris, for example. Surely (we think) men from Paris cough in a diffident, haughty way, almost feminine. Or Saint Petersburg. In Saint Petersburg men must cough with all the consumption of their literature, the tuberculosis of every Winter there's ever been.
"South Africa?" someone advances, but the wife shakes her head as though such a possibility was not only impossible, but also plainly -to her- the product of a dull mind.
"Patagonia. He's from Patagonia and he speaks eight languages."
"Any of them out loud?" I think to ask (but not out loud).
"He's from Patagonia and I met him last Fall while I was crossing The Andes. You go mostly by boat. He captained one of the ferries. We were married a week later. A week after we met."
"Does he speak any English?"
"Not yet," says the man. Finally.
"He told me my voice is like the little rivers of his childhood, always running. He says that to learn the words of my language would ruin the beauty of what I say."
"What language did he tell you this in?"
"Oh, his sister told me. She translates. She came to Quebec with us, but she has to go back."
The man who is not Canadian, who is apparently Patagonian, takes some money from his wife's purse, puts it on the bar and turns to leave, saying as he does so:
"She is a child, but the lakes are too hard. I am hers and the rest is easy. Be kind."
As we turn the page, there's a silence, a sense of loss almost, for they're gone already and all that's left before us is empty and white.
Even on paper the dream of a common language isn't easy.