The Other Language

The Other Language

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

The Other Language

My Aunt Imogen Spark didn’t speak a word of French. Her neighbour, Mrs. Letourneau, didn’t speak a word of English. They had lived next door to each other for thirty-six years, and neither had learned to say so much as hello in the other’s language. They were two of the stubbornest old geese I had ever seen.

If you had your eyes half open, you wouldn’t miss much in the Ontario-Québec border town I grew up in. Especially if you were a little spy-bug snooper like me: at fourteen, that’s what my mother called me. I guess I was curious, and it was easy to keep track of the goings-on in our little town.

The trees never caught on very well; they were rather stunted, with skinny trunks and big spaces between the branches. People in our neighbourhood didn’t go in for hedges or fences much, either. The nearest thing to a fence was the picket one between Aunt Imogen and Mrs. Letourneau’s front yards. It didn’t come up past their knees. One of the few things the town did manage to agree on was well-lit streets. So I had an unobstructed view of our neighbours’ yards and houses. For example, because we lived right across the road, I knew exactly how many times my cousin, Mavis Spark, sneaked in through the side porch window late at night, while young Mike Letourneau sneaked in his.

In summer, I’d sit on our front steps and simply watch what was going on. Across the street, Mrs. Letourneau would be leaning over the fence into Aunt Imogen’s yard, examining a quilt pattern. She would be talking fast in French, and I could catch phrases like, “C’est très beau, très beau!” She would point out unique features of the design using grand gestures. Aunt Imogen would have no idea what she was saying, but would look satisfied.

Other times, they had long “conversations” about gardening across the fence. Aunt Imogen would point from a special concoction of fertiliser in a bucket to the base of her delphiniums and back to the bucket. Often she made a whipping motion with her hands. Mrs. Letourneau would smile and nod, glancing over at her own perennials. Sometimes, while hanging out wash, one or the other would point to the sky as if something unusual might fall from it into their yards. In winter, they used a type of sign language to demonstrate the more subtle points of snow removal. Raising imaginary shovels, they looked like they were in a game of charades. But neither one ever crossed over the fence to the other’s yard. And this had been going on as long as I could remember.

Almost anyone else in town was more bilingually adept, if you could call it that. Garage operators mastered the basic linguistic tools for fill-ups and oil-changes in the other language. French waitresses could carry on polite, even jocular, exchanges in English and vice versa.

It was hockey where you noticed it most. The town’s English team had an alarming array of francophone curses, which splintered the icy air when they heaved themselves at their opponents. The French team had their artillery of curses, too, the meanings of which were all too obvious to the Anglo players. Add to this the fans from both sides heckling each other and the noise was deafening. As a result, my mother didn’t let me go to games very often. But I went a couple of times, and saw Mavis Spark sitting all alone on the French side. Every time Mike Letourneau scored a goal, she’d jump up and cheer, shaking her long red scarf.

One spring day, around dusk, we heard sirens. Ambulances and police cars were seen driving down our street. Everyone came out of their houses: Qu’est-ce qui se passe? What happened? We stood on our porch and watched the red lights throb in the distance.

Mrs. Letourneau and Aunt Imogen must have received the phone calls at the same time. Mike and Mavis’s car had hit black ice. It was over in seconds, the police said later. Aunt Imogen came out of her house first, groped her way down the front steps, fell on her knees in her frozen yard and wept. Mrs. Letourneau came out of her house then. Long strands of gray hair had pulled away from her face and she was wiping her hands on her apron. Mrs. Letourneau hoisted up the layers of skirts she always wore, and lifting first one leg then the other, carried on right over the picket fence. Then she did a surprising thing. She turned around, looked back at the fence and kicked it hard. It buckled, sending up a spray of big white slivers. Then she knelt down on the ground with Aunt Imogen. The two women held each other, sending up a wail of agony only they understood.

The fence was never replaced. They planted delphiniums where it stood, blue spires that spilled over into each other’s yards, like grace.

Jeanette Lynes
Antigonish, Nova Scotia

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners