George is in the back seat singing to himself, or to the wooden toy train he’s fiddling with. My crew, they’re a musical bunch. Violinists, the lot of them. Except me. My instrument is the guitar, but these days it doesn’t make the trip very often. I’m thinking I need to find a smaller instrument if I want to have a shot at joining the family band.
George and I are the only ones who didn’t bring instruments with us, so we just sing.
We leave the shape note singers in Way’s Mills for a different form of singing on the outskirts of Magog at l’Abbaye St.-Benoît-du-Lac. The Benedictine monks there are descendants of ones who were exiled from France after the Revolution, fled to Belgium, and returned to life in the 1830s thanks to a Benedictine named Dom Prosper Guéranger, who kickstarted a liturgical and monastic revival at the abbey of Solesmes. Once, in a former life, I wrote about him and his movement for a book I never finished, but that’s all I can remember. There are not many monks now, maybe two dozen, mostly older. But the church is full with congregants at 11:00 on Sunday.
Back in the landcraft, now fully laden with a cooler-full of cheese made by the monks here, a yellow piece of paper is tucked under the driver-side windshield wiper. I get out to remove it, and it’s just what you expect from a piece of paper stuck under your wiper: a religious tract. It’s at least tasteful, like most things in Quebec. The typeface is attractive and stately, so I assume it must communicate a respectable message. Meredith looks at it and reports otherwise.
Black-ops, stealth-mode evangelicals who prey upon unsuspecting cars in papist parking lots are not just an American thing. They are alive and well in Quebec, too. The tract reminds us to read our Bibles, which apparently they assume Benedictines or people who park in their lots do not to. In spite of the handsome typography, I do not fall for the tired old gambit, and slice off a piece of Benedictine cheese with my Leatherman.
George asks for a slice of bread. I pull out what’s left of the loaf the baker in Stanbridge gave to us as a lagniappe a few days ago.
He’s cousin to our host down the road. A big man, grey-bearded, jovial with the kind of joy that apparently comes from doing the same thing really well—making food for people—for twenty-seven years. He seems to have come into this trade by destiny: his family has lived in this area for two hundred years. They are called the Bakers.
He makes four different loaves a day in a brick oven custom-made locally. It burns hardwood—maple, oak, poplar—at about 400 degrees. Stacks of it, squares rough-cut from long planks, line the wall of the log cabin bakery. He gets the wood from a lumber guy in Vermont, who drives up here regularly. Sometimes in a helicopter, which he lands across the road. They have a gentlemanly agreement: bread for wood. Not a Canadian dime has passed between them, except when the year-end balance is uneven. Last year, they were off slightly. The baker owed the wood guy twenty-five cents.
It’s worked this way for 27 years.
I unfold the serrated blade on the Leatherman and saw into the now-crusty loaf, promptly slicing a bloody gouge into the top of my thumb. It drips onto the oat-flaked top of the loaf.
George is unfazed, still singing.
I hand him an unbloody piece of old bread, crumbs falling to the floor. “Fank you, dad,” he says, and hands me his toy train.
Bread for wood.