The Wild North: Le Loup Garou, retold

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October 26, 2012 by The Editor

A fearsome creature stalks the Northern woods, furtive and tied to the night. It has long haunted the hearts and minds of all who call the North country home. When the first sails were seen off the shores of Tadoussac, trading post of Montagnais and Basque, Mi’kmaq and French, a new civilization was being born. But along with the traders and seamen, children and grandmothers, there were other eyes, older and wild, fixed on the scene. Le loup garou was there as well. Hidden in plain sight, le loup was always there, seen and unseen, feared to the marrow by all.

They had all arrived at the sandy isles to trade. How long had it been since the whalers came? Furs and metal now exchanged hands. The beginnings were slow. Languages were strange and customs unfamiliar. Still they came to know each other and bonds were formed. The appetite for furs and fish drove the French to this beautiful world. The beaver was plentiful and fish sustained them on their journeys. The Indians welcomed the newcomers in and helped them survive the cruel winters as they stayed and cast their lot with a new land.

They had all arrived at Tadoussac. . . and so had le loup garou.

Soon, they all found common cause and moved on together, deep into the pays d’en haut, the Great Lakes and beyond. It wasn’t long before bands of Cree and Ojibwe laid eyes on bands of voyageurs, and they began to trade and hunt together. And it wasn’t long before a man named Jean-Baptiste and Anang, a lovely Ojibwe maiden, became united in the fashion of the country, and children were being born.

Out on the far frontier, the frontier without end, Black Robe missions arose next to the lakeside villages. There in one small village on the shore of Michi gami, was Jean-Baptiste and his lovely daughter Marie, his only child. Though still a strong man, his youthful energy had faded with worry over Marie. They were each their only family, since Anang, his only love and the star in his heavens, had left them too quickly, passing with their only son from life to death in a painful moment.

It had been years since that day, and Marie was coming of age. It was likely she would soon be married. She knew this and Jean-Baptiste knew it too, although he dreaded to see his daughter leave. So he watched over her ­– and he kept an eye on the young men who passed through their village. He saw the men who leered at her, and the men who sought her hand. He watched closely, seeing the smiles and glances, knowing it would come down to him to approve.

It was not long, and the answer was found more easily than he expected. As the Spring of her sixteenth year began, the season’s canoes began to arrive. Among them was a young man, not much older than Marie. Dressed in Indian garb, he was called Antoine, and it was this that stirred Jean’s memory. He was Antoine Peltier, from the mission village to the north. He had visited for many Summers during the rendezvous and Jean-Baptiste had twice been engaged to travel the lakes with his father. Marie noticed Antoine too – she had not forgotten this boy, nor did his own memory fail him.

So Jean-Baptiste saw the match before his eyes and it fell to him to make sure it happened. La mere d’Antoine, Antoine’s mother, was also on the canoe, bound for the Illinois country to take part in the trade. Jean spoke with the woman and they agreed. The two young people were asked about a marriage, but their glances toward one another and their smiles were proof enough of their willingness.

The marriage would take place at the end of the season, in October when the canoes were returning home and for a time they would live with Jean-Baptiste. He arranged work for Antoine – to serve as apprentice to Monsieur Deshetres, the blacksmith for the fort. Jean-Baptiste was overjoyed! He would see his daughter married and remain within the village fold.

In between preparations for travel, Antoine and Marie found time for walks along the shore, out of sight of the prying eyes of the elders. They reminisced about rendezvous and playing together when they were children. But time was short and the canoes prepared to depart, Antoine with them. Seeing the brigade off to the South, the villagers came out to wish them a safe journey. At the last moment, Antoine appeared and in the tradition of his mother’s family, he came bearing gifts of game for Marie and her father which they gladly accepted. A couple was to be united indeed.

The Summer passed, warm and humid, the skies often clear. But good rains had made the land thick with berries, rice, and nuts that would fill the Winter stores. There was plenty for a feast to celebrate the marriage of Antoine and Marie.

October came and the canoes began to return. Marie had made many preparations and was ready for the day when she would begin her new life as wife to Antoine. She had been given much advice from the elder women, and many came forward to support her. Her father had been preparing too, secreting away what small gifts he could offer her, not knowing exactly what a father should do. He missed his shining star Anang, now more than ever, and her gentle knowing ways.

The day came when the canoe bearing Antoine finally arrived. This meant the marriage would take place in a few days time, at the moon of the falling leaves, and the whole village would be there. Until then, Marie and Antoine were allowed only a brief moment together. They would remain apart until that day.

On the eve of their marriage, young Marie set out for a stroll, to visit her favorite view of the big lake. It was a place she often went to, a small inlet, where her thoughts would turn to the mother she barely remembered, and where she would give thanks to the Great Spirit for her life. This day she had much to be thankful for.

She sat looking out across the bay, out of sight of home, away from the hum of the village and fort. It was late afternoon, and the days were growing short. She had brought a blanket and it was enough, but soon she would have to return. The women had prepared some things for tomorrow, baskets of dried flowers and scented waters, and a fine new skirt with beadwork and quills.

As the sun hovered just above the horizon, Marie looked up to see a creature across the small bay walk up to the water and drink. To Marie it appeared to be a dog or a coyote. The light was dim. Not alarmed, she nevertheless held still, not wanting to attract its attention. After a few moments, it turned and began to walk into the forest. Marie then quietly gathered up her blanket and made for home.

She had taken just a few steps when she heard a distressing crack, as she stepped on a fallen branch and broke it in two. Warily, she slowly turned and looking back she stifled a cry as the animal also turned. Their eyes met, fixed upon each other, just as light was fading.

Marie held still, hoping now that the animal would take fright. But instead her muted cry became a whimper as it walked back to the shore and she watched in horror as the beast stood up on its hind legs, six feet or more. This was no dog – it was a wolf, that seemed to be a man!

Le loup garou growled lowly and bared fangs the glowed in the dusk. And there was nothing then that could hold Marie back, as she was fleet of foot. She tore into the forest, twenty minutes from home. Fleeing, she did not look back….and she swore that the heavy breath coming from behind must be hers….that the rush in her ears was just the wind as she ran in terror through the night, naked branches tearing at her soft skin.

­­­­––––––

The women had built a fire and were expecting Marie to join them. Antoine was with Jean-Baptiste and the other men in the fort for a dram of spirits and a few laughs. It was late when Jean-Baptiste left and walked to his cabin, just outside the village. To his surprise, he found two women outside. They asked about Marie, saying she had not appeared. For his part, Jean-Baptiste had assumed she was with them.

Together they began to search. The alarm was raised and search parties formed after Marie was not found in the fort or village. The night, though cold for October, was clear and bright, the surrounding forest lit with the silvery light of the moon. After hours in the dark, the searchers returned, without Marie. They brought only tales, of a howling wolf, but the elders silenced them as they glanced warily toward the edge of the forest. Antoine and Jean-Baptiste were desperate, but everyone needed rest. They would gather at first light to renew the search.

At dawn nearly everyone returned to the forest and along the shore to search for Marie. It was the day of her wedding, and some thought she might have become scared and ran away. But Antoine and Jean-Baptiste knew better. And the elder women had seen the way she smiled.

The day of her wedding passed. Marie was not found. The search continued, but as the days wore on, there was talk of giving up. The mood became sombre as Jean-Baptiste worried into the nights. The weather was turning colder; more needed to be done to store provisions before Winter set in. Slowly the villagers and men of the fort slipped away, whispering to each other, “c’etait le loup garou – it was the loup garou,” giving Jean-Baptiste their sad looks and arms around the shoulders.

Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior, 1869, Frances Anne Hopkins

Antoine had come to his own conclusion. It was too late. Whatever was wrong he could not repair. Brokenhearted, he would return to the North and be among his people. His beloved Marie he had waited for was gone, and now he must journey on. As their canoe left the shore, Antoine bore a strong face. The sad silence was broken by a gentle wake and a mournful cry as he sang a lamenting farewell, the only drum his beating heart, and the little ones ashore drew close around their mothers.

But Jean-Baptiste would not allow the search to end. He begged the others to join him. He convinced three men, Monsieur Deshetres among them, to continue the search for Marie. It is possible she had become very lost, he thought, or lay injured in the woods. She could care for herself, but all the same, she was a young lady. Winter was near, and she would not be abandoned.

They set out the very next morning, walking the trail south. Cries of “Marie, ma fille! my daughter!” shook the forest, but the only response was the screech of a hawk, the lament of an owl, and a rabbit darting away. They traveled throughout the Northern woods, through swamp and highland, as far  south as the Ottawa at Middle Village, where they stopped at L’arbre Croche. There, wearied and hungry, the men found welcome and a warm place to sleep after many days in the wild. That night, the men convinced Jean-Baptiste the search must end. Broken, he agreed. As night grew late, Jean-Baptiste grew quiet and slept but little.

The next morning, canoes were arranged to take the men back north. Jean-Baptiste remained quiet and the others paddled. He was in mourning for his daughter, but the men also noticed a deeper change. He had grown grey and wan. He had barely touched the food he was given. He seemed lost, still searching in his mind for Marie.

The journey home would take a long day even with a tailwind, pushing them on. They hugged the shore: these waters could turn black and treacherous in a moment, particularly now that November had arrived. Toward the end of day, with another hour of light left to them, they passed through the isles at Waugoshance. Closing in on Mackinac, the men regained their flagging strength and cut the canoes closer to shore. The air was ever colder and a brisk breeze was now against them, slowing their way.

Jean-Baptiste also came out of his stupor. He looked at the others, and as the wind whipped a chilly blast, he began to weep. The men looked at each other, shook their heads, and paddled on. But suddenly, the canoe carrying Jean-Baptiste was rocked from side to side and with a violent lurch, he leapt from the canoe and into the freezing waters, up to his knees! He was running for shore and the men were unable to catch him in the rocky shallows! Monsieur Deshetres held them back. It would be better, he thought, to let him go ashore.

To their horror Jean-Baptiste tore his clothing on the naked branches, running along the water’s edge, keeping pace with the canoes and wailing into the night, into the forest. They approached the shore slowly, in hopes of luring him back. They shouted to him that they had food, and he came toward them as they reached the shore. Monsieur Deshetres lifted himself from his canoe, walked slowly to his old friend, and begged him to come back to the water. No sooner had he laid his hand on Jean-Baptiste’s shoulder than he himself was on his back sprawled across the wet, sandy beach.

As the men watched Jean-Baptiste disappear into the darkening wood, the first snow of November began to fall. Lightly dancing from the sky, the land would soon be white, the water frozen. And in the deepening night, just a moon after Marie’s fateful Autumn eve on the bay, these men now heard the last of Jean-Baptiste that day. He screamed in the darkness, “Marie, ma fille, my daughter, come back to me!” and they all heard as if in answer, a long, cruel howl in the distance and a chill much deeper descended upon them all.

For other tales of le Loup Garou, see “Legend of Loup Lafontaine”, “Jean Plante and the Loup Garou”, and Legends of le Détroit.

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