“Let's be honest: Who hasn't fantasized about shooting someone in the face with a hunting rifle?”
One day, a thirteen-year-old girl decides to startle a classmate. Instead, she accidentally kills him.
And she likes it.
Over the years, she begins experimenting with murder. Her victims are, of course, people that deserve it: a careless driver, a CEO of an energy corporation that is destroying the planet, a rapist. Every crime scene is flawless — untraceable and made to look like an accident or suicide. But, as she sleepwalks through her day job and lives in a crummy apartment, one thing becomes increasingly clear: she needs more.
Because nothing compares to the thrill of violent retribution.
About the authors
J.D. Kurtness won the Indigenous Voices Award for French Prose in 2018 for De vengeance. She lives in Montreal.
Pablo Strauss’s previous translations for Coach House Books are The Country Will Bring Us No Peace, The Supreme Orchestra, and Baloney. He is a two-time finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for translation, for Synapses (2019) and The Longest Year (2017). Pablo grew up in Victoria, B.C., and has lived in Quebec City for fifteen years.
Excerpt: Of Vengeance (by (author) J.D. Kurtness; translated by Pablo Strauss)
Let’s be honest: Who hasn’t fantasized about shooting someone in the face with a hunting rifle? It doesn’t matter why. In the heat of the moment, one reason’s as good as the next. When the reasons still seem good after enough time has passed, I take action.
Every day I look a murderer in the eye. There she is, through the looking glass. An inverted image of the same person standing on my side of the mirror. I’m a murderer; the murderer’s face is my face. Voilà. I know exactly what a murderer looks like. Hey, friend.
I look myself in the eye, hands resting on the rim of the sink, and perform my daily affirmation. “I’m a murderer.” It’s my own personal version of “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. I can do this.” My lips move and, depending on the words I say, a few teeth appear. The same ones that show when I smile.
I recite each word slowly, either in my head or ever-so-quietly out loud. Sometimes I take a chance and say it slightly louder, in my normal speaking voice. I like the sound of my own voice. It’s a murmur in my silent apartment, slipping out of the bathroom only to be drowned out by the electrical hum in the walls. I listen to the irregular clicking of the baseboard heaters, generating heat without the slightest concern about who I am.
Another reason for this daily ritual: I’m scared of forgetting who I am. Sometimes life is good, and I take breaks.
It’s a summer afternoon. I’m twelve, finished with elementary school. I’ve been on summer holidays for three weeks now, and I’m hanging out down by the river. There’s nothing I enjoy more than spending entire days outside, coming home only to eat. Sometimes I even skip meals, though my parents disapprove. I come home when evening falls and it gets hard to see. Get some sleep and head right back out the next day. Eighteen hours of daylight is my version of bliss.
I’m in a place I think of as my spot. There’s a tree that’s perfect for climbing, with three branches in all the right places: one under my ass, one to prop up my feet, and a third to rest my back on. Together they form a chair of sorts. I have a nice view of the little river flowing through a ditch down below. I can also see the opposite bank. If I stretch, I enjoy an almost unobstructed 270-degree view all the way to the cemetery, where the trail runs. I can’t see behind my position, but that’s no big deal; all that’s out that way is forest too dense to play in this time of year. Beyond the forest is a city park, but no one really bothers with it — why would you, with all this pristine nature, teeming with life?
Up in my tree, no one can see me. Sometimes I pack a lunch. I make my own. My parents think I’m responsible and have stopped worrying that I’ll starve to death. I’m almost a teenager, so it only makes sense that I’ve more or less stopped talking to them. That’s their theory, anyway.
I wrap my food in nonreflective packaging. No aluminum foil, no plastic bags. I watched a movie once where the murderers caught sight of a witness because of a ray of light that reflected in the lens of her binoculars. That won’t happen to me. I also steer clear of sunglasses. They’re just one more thing to carry around, one more thing I’d probably lose anyway. Noise isn’t such a big deal up here. It’s okay to open a container, move around, let out a sigh. The river drowns out most sounds. Except for screams.
I found my spot last week. I was out early to do a little scouting before anyone else showed up. Sometimes I arrive too late, and there are already people at the river bank or the path leading up to it. When that happens, I turn right back.
One morning, eight days ago to be precise, I got here early enough one day to find a nice quiet spot. Just the kind of place no one would think to look. Eureka: the perfect tree. Next to it was a large rock that I could stand on to reach the higher branches. It was a massive balsam fir that had by some miracle survived an entire century without being massacred at the altar of Christmas. An old, almost dead tree with barely any remaining trace of scent and not a lot of sap to stick to my clothing. Sap smells great, but it’s hard to get off your clothes, so I stay away. I don’t want hassles with my mom.
I’ve been counting the days since I found my tree: eight. I count a lot of things. The number of kids down below, the tiles on my ceiling, the holes in my runners, the exact number of seconds it takes an egg to cook so the yolk is still a little runny but not slimy. Careful planning minimizes the chances of nasty surprises.
My first time was a stroke of random luck. I responded with sound reflexes, and discovered the sheer pleasure of it. Now I come mentally and physically prepared, and bring all the equipment I could ever need.
I’m still startled every time I catch a glimpse of myself in a window, a mirror, or a photograph. My face is all wrong. Some might put it differently; they’d say I have the perfect face. My theory is that I was born with someone else’s face, and my real one is off somewhere else, attached to the wrong soul.
I just don’t look the part. My face should be angular, striking, and slender, with that sickly pallor certain men find irresistible. But the allure of the mysterious femme fatale, that image we’re bombarded with day in and day out, just isn’t me. I’m fresh-faced, with the most innocuous features imaginable. I emanate innocence and wholesome pleasures, like farmers’ daughters advertising milk or girls on the packaging of anti-acne medication. Just like them, my pores breathe healthily. I have slightly rounded features, a ready smile, straight teeth, and smiling eyes. Even the beginnings of crow’s feet, if you look closely. My pale skin turns rosy in the wind, or in the cold, or when I exert myself. My cheeks are like scrumptious fall apples. People have been saying it since I was a little girl. All the hours I spend outside, plus these freckles: How could anyone imagine I’m not an exemplary young woman?
Where did that other face end up, the one that should be mine by rights? What happened to that pointed jaw, those big feverish eyes and salient cheekbones? Who got that intimidating head of hair? Was my soul mixed up with another in some limbo, like babies switched at birth in a Latin-American hospital?
I wonder if ugly people feel the same way: startled by their own reflections in the mirror, disgusted by an unattractiveness no amount of torment will ever inure them to. Do they feel the same confusion I do after performing certain acts? Are they, like me, unable to believe that the symmetry of their faces remains unchanged? If my outward appearance reflected my inner self, I’d look dangerous, like the bad guys who get killed off at the beginning of the movie: dark-skinned cannon fodder, balding villains, disfigured hoodlums, random henchmen. I might also give off that whiff of danger, but I have to face facts; I just don’t. My pheromones collide with those of other people without causing so much as a ripple. Yet the real danger is her. This woman I spy from the corner of my eye in every window I pass. She’s there in the bathroom, just above the sink. She’s the one staring at me innocently.
I look like a nurse, or a librarian, or a soccer player. My face is my best alibi.
A softly creepy look into a sociopath starting with her thoughts as a 12-year-old. Narrated in a non-linear fashion, she starts with an incident from her past and her philosophy of who deserves to be punished. She’s out for revenge on wrongdoers who bully or disrupt the environment. She grew up with loving parents and a nice home but this is how she is wired. I’m not sure how I feel about the ending but I can see how she evolved to commit that last act.
Audrey Huang, Belmont Books
Kurtness writes smoothly … Readers into passive-aggressive fantasies will best appreciate this one.
This chiseled writing, this extraordinary character and this particular humour may seduce the most difficult reader
A chilling justification of a life of violence, as nonchalant as it is grim.
In deceptively simple prose, Kurtness mounts a poignant and timely argument about the danger of running headlong into the hands of technologies we don’t fully understand....The true horror in Of Vengeance lies in Kurtness’s ability to sway you to the protagonist’s side; more than once, I caught myself wholeheartedly agreeing with her worldview. Part of the reason she’s so relatable is that she’s not just a villain, she’s a victim as well.
Montreal Review of Books