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Balzac said the history of Cormorant Bay is no more shameful than any other. The town was founded in the first decade of the twentieth century, around the time the government offered free land to veterans of the Fenian raids and the Boer War. These former soldiers were supposed to survive on plots laid out by the railway, barely arable land that the lying government called the ‘banana belt’. Of course none of this would have been possible without there first having been a full-out land grab from the Cree. One family, the Birds, were central to this story. Chief Michel Bird was one of the signatories of Treaty Nine, his son Charlie, who’d tried to talk him out of signing, would go on to name the town, and Jimmy, Michel’s brother, staked the claim that would become the Blackhawk Mine. As the story goes, Jimmy heard a voice one night while working on a TNO railway survey crew. It led him to a large rocky outcrop split in two by a deep crevice and when he looked down into it the voice told him to walk west until daylight. In the brilliant light of dawn he saw a quartz vein that contained a strip of gold as wide as his wrist. In 1909 he staked his claim then got drunk and sold it to a man called Connie Black for twenty-five dollars. By 1910 there were dozens of headframes and hundreds of tents along the muddy streets of a handful of town-sites. At the centre of these grew a community later to be known as Cormorant Bay. In 1910, when the town fathers decided to file for incorporation, they had no idea what the hell to call it. All the good names like Whitney, Dane, Monteith, Cochrane or Englehart – names of bureaucrats and politicians – had already been taken. The naming committee was stumped until Charlie Bird came to the rescue. He told them a cormorant had led the ancient Cree to a place called Sh’nia, the fabled city of gold. Of course this was a pack of lies but the committee fell for it and named the town after the mythical bird (because Sh’nia sounded too Indian). What they didn’t know was the true story of the cormorant, that it had led the Cree to the spot where they murdered their children. The town had been named,  then, not for a story of hidden riches but for one of great evil. This was Charlie’s revenge on the white settlers for having tricked his father into signing Treaty Nine, and on the white businessmen for having stolen his Uncle Jimmy’s claim. Charlie Bird changed his last name to Cormorant, to commemorate his victory. You won’t find mention of this in any history book on Cormorant Bay.

Balzac told me Cormorant Bay was the hub of the gold rush. In 1923 the Reveillon brothers, looking to get rich, moved here from Montreal and set up a combined general store and furniture business. Above the shop were two apartments, one that the brothers shared and one that they rented out to the Mondoux family, but they moved away in 1944 after their only son was killed at Monte Casino. In 1948 the Reveillons closed up their business and retired to lower Secord. In February of 1951 they sold the building to Balzac. Since 1947 he’d worked in the mine but was tired of worrying about rock falling, was fed up with getting chronic headaches from after-blast gasses, and was sick of spitting up the grey aluminium dust sprayed in the dry to cover up the lung-eating silica. So he decided to set up his own business.

The building he’d bought was in sad shape – draughty, a leaky roof, and so out of square that unlatched doors would open by themselves. If you were to place a marble on the hardwood floors it would roll north. In March, Balzac moved in to the second floor and began tearing down the wall separating the apartments, leaving him with two of everything – kitchens, toilets, bathtubs, doorways, even front doors. The main floor, which was as big a dance hall, he turned into a second-hand store, kick-started with a few pieces of furniture left over from the Reveillon brothers – two wringer washers, a horsehair chesterfield, an Admiral radio that almost worked, maple tables and chairs, an assortment of porcelain animal lamps, a small soapstone angel, and a horrible print by Goya that he hated. It depicted a wild-man devouring small, terrified children, and was supposedly based on the myth of Chronos eating his offspring but Balzac knew this was no myth at all but an actual atrocity. However, he would not throw it out, not because he respected art but because he believed that the suffering of children shouldn’t be forgotten. He stashed it behind a Johnson outboard motor and three white-wall tires.

In the first few months, Balzac would go up and down the street buying anything he could to fill the shop, and at the end of the day he’d return with a wooden pushcart heaped high. In no time he distinguished himself as both a shrewd buyer and a merchant with no talent whatsoever for organizing his merchandise. On one shelf you’d see a 1930 postcard from Marion Indiana, a Russian four-cornered bayonet and a 500-foot gill net. On another shelf you might find army surplus sleeping bags, Gareth Jones’ photographs of the Ukrainian famine and a book of poetry by Anna Akhmatova. I picked this up once and brought it to Balzac for a translation. He opened it at random and read, “The past rots in the future.” He closed the book and said, “Can’t you smell the stench?”


The fine art of highgrading

Balzac said he’d come to Canada in 1947 and was compelled by the government to work on a farm for two years. Lucky for him he was posted to a shrewd Dutchman he was able to make a deal with. He left after four months, went to the McMaster Mine as a production miner and concentrated on paying off his debt to deHann. I asked Balzac where he’d come from but he evaded the question. When I asked him how he’d managed to amass enough money to buy a building after working only three years underground, he cleared his throat like a politician and began to explain it was attributable to five factors. He enumerated these on the thick fingers of his big hand: first, he’d never wasted money on a car; second, he’d always bought his clothing and furniture second-hand; third, he’d worked hard and made good production bonus; fourth, he’d brewed his own wine and never ate at restaurants. And fifth. He paused awhile then said that he’d always made a point of reusing his tea bags. As usual he’d omitted the obvious, that a gold miner has access to the gold he is mining. Wheezy told me Balzac made a bundle selling stolen ‘highgrade’ gold, some that he’d pick up in his stope and some that he’d buy from other miners and stash underground until he was ready to make a haul to surface. He’d mill it at home before bringing it to Carlesso. He had a nice little trade going when he happened upon a brilliant idea.

Wheezy told me that Harold Pike had been mine manager back then. Balzac went in to see him with his brainwave and stood boldly in front of the great oak desk. He announced that he knew how to fix the highgrading problem. Pike narrowed his eyes. He knew Balzac was up to something shady but decided it would be a mistake not to listen. Balzac told him they’d never really stop the highgrading – they could double the gold squad and still not make a dent.

Pike shouted, “You came here to tell me that?”

“There’s more,” said Balzac and then admitted to having highgraded. When Pike heard that his face went red and he slammed the desk. He shouted at Balzac to get out or he’d fire him. That was when Balzac knew he had him. He eased his large rump into the oak chair across from Pike.

“Take a deep breath,” he told Pike.

“You take a breath,” shouted Pike.

Balzac smiled as he began to explain his proposition. He said the mine would never stop the theft of gold but what they could do was cut their losses.

“If we can’t stop the theft, how do we do that?” barked Pike, his face flushed pink.

Here’s what Balzac would do for the mine. Pike wouldn’t have to fire him because he would quit. However, he would maintain his contacts with the highgraders he’d met while he’d worked underground. He’d continue to buy stolen gold from them.

Pike threw up his hands, “I can’t believe it.”

“Just listen,” said Balzac. “These guys don’t know how much pure gold is in the stuff they sell. Carlesso buys it for 30% of what it is worth after it is milled. What I’ll do is give the men 35%. ”

Wheezy told me that Balzac threw this bit in to make it seem like he could get the jump on Carlesso. This was the sort of thing he knew Pike would bite on.

Pike’s hands, which were pressed against the side of his head, now began pulling at his hair in silent rage. “That’s the deal? You’re going to steal my gold?” he shouted, the pink on his face and neck deepening into scarlet.

“Relax,” said Balzac and told him that after he bought the gold at such a discount he’d sell it back to Pike. That way the mine would get its gold back, could mill it and still turn a profit.

Pike knew the big man had him over a barrel. If he said, No, Balzac would buy the highgrade gold anyway and sell it to the Wop who’d move it through his Hamilton mob contacts. And if he said, Yes, to Balzac, he’d be buying back his own God-damned gold. But Harold Pike was shrewd enough to know Balzac was right. Even if he paid twice for the gold he could still manage to turn a nice profit for the company, so he decided to play along. Later he could maybe squeeze out of Balzac the names of the highgrading bastards and then get the gold squad to move in and arrest the whole works, including Balzac.

“How much do you want?” Pike asked.

“A pittance.”

“How much?”

“Twelve percent.”

"Ten. Or I call the gold squad right now and have them search your house. ”

“You win,” said Balzac. He’d figured on getting only eight percent but frowned anyways, knowing that when you’ve won with one of these Brits it was always best to look beaten. The two men shook hands and Pike began to dictate how their transactions would be conducted. It hadn’t even crossed his mind that Balzac would be brazen enough to sell his gold back to him and also to keep some for himself. Wheezy said that Balzac knew if Pike ever put the screws to him he could cut the flow of stolen gold to the mine and peddle it to the Jewish mob in Montreal.

According to Wheezy, Balzac found only a small amount of joy in the money he made in this highgrading scheme. What he liked most about it was that it allowed him to concentrate his attention on his one true love – buying and selling junk. Gold was lifeless, but every item in the junkshop was beyond price because each one had a story to tell.


The devils

Balzac told me Edelman came to Canada in the fall of 1951, and like most immigrants he landed without two pennies to rub together. At the UNRRA Displaced Persons camp in Pocking, the Canadian Immigration Officer had conducted the usual interview and physical screening and agreed to take him and his daughter because an uncle in Montreal had promised to hire Edelman. He and the girl sailed from Bremerhaven on the Samaria. It docked in Halifax and they made their way to Montreal only to discover that the uncle had changed his tune. But Edelman took this in his stride and felt thankful just to be alive. In no time he found work at a cabinet shop off Saint-Urbain. But in this Jewish neighbourhood there were always questions about the past. Edelman could see the girl was getting progressively sicker, so he decided to take her somewhere she could breathe clean air, make new friends and leave the past behind.

He’d heard there were jobs in the goldfields of northern Ontario, in a town called Cormorant Bay. So he went there with the intention of finding steady work in the mine and getting a small house in a nice neighbourhood where his daughter could make friends. When he discovered he was too small to pass the mine’s physical he applied for work on surface. He landed an office job at the Paymaster Mine and then rented the small house next to the Noble Mansion. He hoped his daughter would find a friend but the only one she’d talk to was Alexander Noble’s boy.

Edelman’s hopes for his daughter didn’t pan out and she got progressively sicker. Often he’d have to sit up with her all night, trying to calm her. He wouldn’t go to work until she was settled, and this sometimes took days. Eventually he was fired. After that he made his living by doing small household repairs. This gave him the flexibility of staying with the girl when she had one of her bad spells, which became more frequent and more severe. Eventually she had to be committed to a psychiatric hospital in Toronto. After that he tried looking for full-time work but who’d hire a sickly looking little Jew who couldn’t hold a steady job? The junkshop was his last hope. The first thing he told Balzac during his job interview was that he had no experience in the used furniture business, and probably couldn’t persuade a customer to buy something if his life depended on it.

“I’m not much of a salesman …”

“You’ve convinced me of that. Don’t worry, I’ll teach you about deals … can you repair things?”


“Electrical things. Washers, toasters, other gadgets.”

“I guess. But …

“But what?”

“Where’s the shop?”

“Right here,” said Balzac.

“There’s nothing here.”

“You are a blind man from the land of the blind if you can not see the presence of the uncreated,” boomed Balzac and stomped off to the back of the shop where he found a crowbar and with it began ripping down musty shelves. He’d forgotten to remove the contents from one and hubcaps went clattering across the floor, as if avoiding some invisible firecat.

The little man began coughing and covered his mouth with a silk hankie as he watched, calling over the din, “When do I start?”

“Right now, if you have a crowbar or an axe. Otherwise, tomorrow at nine.”

Balzac knew there’d be hell to pay with him hiring a Jew. And he was right: Stan Boyko refused to come into the shop anymore; Andreij Nowicki treated Edelman as if he were an enemy; and Viktor Drechsler referred to him as ‘little Jew ungeziefer’ a term he’d no doubt picked in the Latvian Auxiliary Police. But as far as Balzac was concerned, if they didn’t like Edelman they could all go to hell, and he’d give them directions.

When Edelman showed up for work that first morning and saw the chaos of disassembled shelving, he announced that he’d do the carpentry himself. Every day he worked till long after dark, converting the rear portion of the junkshop into a small repair shop. In two weeks he’d built a counter, a workbench and shelving on which he arranged lamps, small electrical appliances, radios and clocks. Balzac frowned at the fastidiousness of the workmanship and at the orderliness of the workspace. “It will have to do,” he grunted.

Balzac said Edelman didn’t talk much during the day. He’d work at his repairs, receive customers, look at their broken appliances and give estimates on when they might be fixed. For each job he’d fill out a duplicate order form that he’d designed himself. When someone came in with an object to be repaired the small man would first fill out a form, recording the particulars and indicating the estimated cost and expected delivery date. He would give the carbon copy to the customer and file the original chronologically with his work orders.

Balzac asked him, “Why do you make so much work for yourself? Just take what they give you. When they want it back they’ll come for it.”

“And if they don’t return?”

“Then sell it. Now there’s a profit.”

“That would be wrong.”

“Wrong,” Balzac exploded. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong,” he began, but said no more because there was so much wrong with both heaven and earth that he didn’t know where to start.

When Edelman’s workshop was renovated, Balzac suggested they begin work on the attic, converting it into a small apartment where the little man could live. Edelman refused but Balzac told him the rent would be half of what he was paying Noble, and then asked him why he needed a whole house all to himself. Edelman had no good answer and so Balzac proceeded to nag him until he gave in. In four months they transformed the old attic, putting in a dormer, water and electricity, drywall, replica aluminium band watches pine flooring and a set of external stairs to a private entrance.

Edelman’s daughter wasn’t getting any better and now believed she was back at the death camp and he was one of the doctors. Whenever she saw him she’d go rigid with fear. When he’d return from one of these visits he’d pour himself into his work and sometimes fall so deeply into it that he’d forget how wretched he felt. During these moments of reprieve Edelman would roll up his sleeves as he bent over a broken appliance and often hum something by Strauss or Hayden. When a customer came in he’d sometimes forget his sleeves were rolled, but when he’d see the person staring at his forearm he’d snap back to reality and duck below the counter as if searching for paperwork. He’d emerge with his sleeves rolled down, covering his shame. Sometimes groups of teenagers would come in and huddle in a small cluster, their only purpose being to see if the little man’s arms were exposed, but Edelman was never offended by unintentional cruelty.

In late June, 1954, just after school had let out for summer, Terrance McGraw and Gerald Menard came in carrying a radio. The pretty Poirier girl strutted behind and Sandy Noble waited outside on the street. Balzac eyed them suspiciously and the two boys wouldn’t make eye contact as they headed straight for Edelman’s repair bench, but the brazen girl looked square at him. He knew something was afoot so he grabbed a push broom and eased his way down a side aisle, rolex replica trying to see what these young devils were up to. He stood out of sight and listened as Menard explained some problem with the radio to the little Jewish man. Edelman picked up a form and asked the boy for his telephone number. Gerald Menard mumbled something inaudible. Edelman said he did not hear and asked the boy to please repeat, and that’s when Menard rolled up his sleeve and exposed a telephone number he’d written on the white flesh of his left forearm. He shoved it in the man’s face and said, replica stainless steel band watches “There it is. Now show me your number.” When he pretended that he was going to grab Edelman’s arm, the old man pulled back in horror. Ticky McGraw just stood there and gawked but Lisa Poirier giggled as if she’d just witnessed the cutest thing in the world. When Menard and McGraw noticed Balzac wielding the broom they ran for it, but pretty Lisa Poirier just smiled and sauntered coolly to the front, impervious to the shouts and threats of the red faced man.

“Get out of here, you devils.”

She wiggled her behind smartly as she walked onto the street where Sandy Noble waited for her. She fell into his arms and began to laugh hysterically. Menard came over and put his arm around her waist, and the three of them walked up the street with McGraw trailing.

Balzac came back to the repair bench still thundering, “Those damn devils. I’ll teach them.”

Edelman smiled. Balzac stared daggers at the little man, “What do you have to laugh about?”

“I never knew devils could be banished with a broom.”


The gift

Ricky would often stand outside the junkshop and stare at the stone angel for over an hour before going in and asking Balzac to show it to him. The big man would lift himself down from his stool, grunt and curse, then lumber to the display window and curse some more as he’d shift stacks of china plates, guitars, violins and his treasured Caravaggio so he could get at the carving. When he’d finally haul it out he’d thrust it at Ricky, as if to say, Here, take it.

One afternoon, about a year after Ricky had been shot, and a couple of days after Balzac had driven out the devils, Ricky came in and began pestering Balzac for the angel. The big man handed it to the boy then sloughed him off to the back before he could launch into one of his stories. When Edelman saw him coming he carefully laid down his soldering iron and took off his glasses in preparation for the story Ricky always told when holding the angel.

“Hey Avner, I ever tell you how the angel’s wing got broken?”

“No. I don’t think you have.”

“But if I already told you, would you want to hear it again?”

“A story about an angel? I can’t see what harm it would do to hear it more than once.”

“Ok, then. In the beginning … ”

Ricky went into all the details: the ordinance used in the war, the long stalemate, the sudden appearance of the frail warrior, how she dragged Satan out of Heaven and held on to him as they plunged to earth, and how the Dark One emerged to claim the world as his own. When Ricky was finished, the old man nodded thoughtfully and put on the wire rimmed glasses he’d removed for the listening. Then he picked up his soldering iron as if it were a brush and he were about to paint a great mural of the war in heaven. But all he did was go back to work on a toaster.

“Hey Avner, you think the Dark Angel is still around somewheres?”

The old man wanted to reassure the boy there was no such thing as a Dark Angel but would not speak such an egregious lie, so he bowed his head and continued to work.

“Do you think he’ll come here?” asked Ricky.

Edelman stayed silent.

Ricky was frightened now. “What will we do if he does?”

The small man put down the soldering iron and told Ricky to wait, and then he walked to the front of the store and asked Balzac if he’d already put the stone angel back in the display window.

“You think that’s all I have to do?”

Then he pulled the angel from beneath the counter, handed it to Edelman and asked, “Why do you want it?”

Edelman shrugged. He brought the angel to Ricky and handed it to him, “Here. She’ll protect you from the Dark Man.”

“You’re giving her to me?”

This was not what Edelman had intended but he told Ricky, “Yes, I am. See that she protects us all.”

When Balzac saw Ricky head out the door with his treasure he barked, “Where do you think you’re going with that?”

“Home,” said Ricky.

“That’s not what I meant.” But Ricky just waved and kept on going.
Balzac stormed to the repair counter, “The idiot thinks the angel is his.”

“It is. I gave it to him,” said Edelman.

“You what?”

“I gave it to him.”

“Well I want it. How do you propose I get it back?”

“You could buy it.”

“Are you telling me I have to pay twice for what’s mine?”

“Let him have it. It’s no great loss,” said Edelman.

“No great loss?”

He appeared as if he was about to let the matter drop but this was not Balzac’s style, “For the love of God, why would you have given away the most valuable object in the store? And to a simpleton? Can you give me one good reason?”

“So she can protect us.”

“Protect us? A statue? Have you lost your mind?”

“Who can ever know for sure?”

Balzac plopped his great bulk upon a small wooden chair and buried his face in his hands, the way Job might’ve. When he removed them, he looked up, not at Edelman but at a God he did not believ e in, and spoke to him as if the two of them were old friends, “So now he believes in angels … ”

When Balzac was finished speaking to the Lord, he looked at Avner Edelman and just shook his head in disbelief, as if to say no words could possibly shed any light on the incomprehensibility of what he’d done. But Edelman was not ready to allow this situation to fall into the abyss of mystery. He smiled at his new friend and in his usual small voice asked, “Why shouldn’t we believe in angels? We believe in devils, don’t we?”


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