December 2, 2012 by The Editor
This French-Canadian folktale draws on both Native American legends and the European story of the Wild Hunt. A Winter tale, it has long been associated with voyageurs and lumbermen. Many versions exist, including no. 18 of Legends of le Detroit.
It was ten days into winter and the lumber camp was buried again. With all the snow they’d seen since November, little cutting had been done. Many days les bûcherons (lumbermen) were all but snowbound. Christmas had come and gone with no word of home. The men were beyond restless. It was one thing to spend the winter logging, another to miss the pleasures the holiday should have brought them.
The early snows had also prevented decent hunting. They had only been there for two months and ten men had already gone through provisions enough for twenty in half the time. At this rate the stores would be empty before March. Their tack and dried meat were already running low.
From mid-December, the foreman had sent two men out every day to hunt. There was also an Ojibwe camp a few miles upstream and their hunters sometimes brought game to the lumbermen in exchange for tobacco or knives or whatever they had on hand, but no one had seen them since the first two weeks. Day by day, the hunters came back with a bird, a rabbit, if they were lucky. It was hardly enough to feed ten men for a day, let alone keep them in meat for the Winter.
The foreman had held back as much as he could in the beginning so Christmas dinner would seem generous, but no one was fooled by the meager offerings. So they had taken their drams of brandy, as little consolation as it was, and warmed themselves by the fire. At least they had plenty of fuel. Games and songs kept them occupied until darkness set in upon another snowbound day on the Rivière Au Sable.
So this is how they found themselves on December 31. The men woke up knowing there would be no réveillon this year. Missing the New Years Eve feast was a bitter pill indeed. With little work to be done, they all just sat waiting for the day to pass, another snowstorm battering their cabin and darkness falling not much past noon.
Jean Jolicoeur, the youngest of the crew and in his first year at camp, seemed less bothered by it all then the rest of the men. Ever since his arrival from old Québec he had been keen to do everything. His energy was boundless. He also didn’t have a wife and children back home, which was a fact weighing on the minds of the rest of the men. And now on the last day of the year, he was taking it easy, amiable by the fire, while the rest of the men said little.
Jolicoeur sat by the wall, playing with a deck of cards, the only thing he had brought with him aside from the clothes on his back. Nicolas St. Louis sat across from him, up next to the fire. It was dim in the barracks, day or night. The fire cast flickering shadows across the floor. At night, candles and crude oil lamps brought a warm glow to their common room. In the smoke of pipes and a leaking chimney, they passed the time. Jolicoeur amused himself with card tricks and soon found he had an audience for his game.
“Pick three cards monsieur, and I’ll tell you what they are,” he said and closed his eyes. St. Louis eyed him and picked three cards holding them face down. Jolicoeur said nothing and closed the deck upon itself. After a few moments he said, “ace of hearts, ten of diamonds, and three of clubs,” as if in a trance.
St. Louis laid out his three cards and he was astonished to see the three that Jolicoeur had predicted. One by one, the rest of the men came over to demand he do the trick again. Over and over again, they were astonished that he guessed the cards they held closely to their chests.
“Now tell us Jolicoeur, where in the world did you learn this trick? You have to tell us what the secret is. . .”
He refused to tell, only saying that he had learned this and many other tricks back home, on the Ile d’Orleans.
At that they had a laugh. ‘Ile d’Orleans, eh? Ile des Sorciers more like it’ and they all had a tale to tell of a some ill fortune that started there. Jean-Baptiste Peltier told the story of Cadillac and the old sorceress who warned of bad omens in his venture to the west. Word soon came back of Cadillac and the Nain Rouge and fire destroying their stores. She had predicted an inauspicious start to Detroit, and it came true. . .
After a while the card tricks grew old and the men filtered back to their own games, telling stories, a little more lively as evening came on.
“That damn kid, he had to mention home. I would give anything to get back there tonight,” said Benoit.
Jolicoeur heard them all, and thought to himself, ‘be careful what you ask for, my friend.’ But he stayed where he was and was quiet. Nicolas St. Louis also stayed where he was. He grew quiet and spent a long time looking into the fire, glancing now and again over at the younger man.
Finally, he said, “Tell me Jolicoeur, if you won’t tell us how the trick is done, tell us at least, who taught you.”
At this Jolicoeur sat up and said with a smile, “Well, I taught myself mostly, and my mémé, she knew a lot of tricks and taught me well.”
Not quite satisfied with that, St. Louis asked, “What other tricks can you do Jolicoeur? Maybe you can whip us up a feast! A real réveillon!”
At this, the men all laughed. They were definitely in a bit better cheer as evening came on. Monsieur foreman had begun to distribute their shares of brandy and they had begun to swing from sullen to a bit gay and lighthearted. If they had to be at camp on New Year’s eve, they would make the most of it.
A real commotion began when someone suggested a reel. St. Louis had a fiddle and he played a tune. Jolicoeur moved out of the way and stood close to the fire. As the dance wound down, he gave a hearty laugh with the rest of the men and downed his dram. He had a peculiar laugh, it must be said, awfully deep for so young man, one that drew the attention of the others as they began to enjoy themselves. He was a small fellow. But against a background of fire, his shape had come to fill the hearth. The flames cast an eerie glow on his youthful features. He suddenly seemed immense, like a giant shadow in the dim light of the barracks and he drew the gaze of every man in the room.
From the back Peltier said, “How about that réveillon Jolicoeur? You look like a real magician to me.” The camp dog was now quite alert as well and sidled up to Jolicoeur.
And then Jolicoeur spoke the words that every man there had yearned and dreaded to hear: “Why would you want a réveillon here, my friends? I’ll one up you. Perhaps we can make a deal and I can arrange for you to be home for the evening. I know you’ve heard the old Indian tales. The enchanted canoe. Put your faith in me, and you’ll get your réveillon and kiss your sweethearts goodnight too.”
The room fell silent. Benoit blessed himself and the dog covered his nose with his paws. Peltier said, “Well, what about it?”
To which St. Louis, Métis himself, replied, “Boys, you know this is the Devil’s work. I’ve been to the Ile des Sorciers. Don’t mess with something you might regret.”
And Jolicoeur laughed, “You know monsieur, the gentlemen might just want to honor the holiday, to see their families. There’s nothing wrong with that. As for the Devil, well, I admit he does have a part to play, but only if you disobey the rules. It’s simple. It will be all or no one, and monsieur le chien rides at the front. Then when we are aloft, you must never take the name of your Lord in vain nor reach out for the church steeples we pass by on our flight. If any man does, every man is cursed.”
They all began to talk at once and heads were nodding oui and non. . . “We’re three hundred miles from la ville de Détroit. Everyone will think its queer. We’ll be cursed either way,” said Peltier.
“Not so,” said Jolicoeur. “The fête will be as normal. You’ll kiss your wives and children and everyone there will have a grand old time. But at midnight, you’ll return. You’ll say your goodbyes and be back at camp by morning, as long as you obey the rules. They’ll barely notice you’re there, but you’ll be the blessing on everyone’s lips.”
The men fell into a heated discussion. Benoit and Peltier said no. St. Louis was swayed to yes, and the foreman stayed silent. Finally, Jolicoeur said that a vote should be taken and they all agreed that majority ruled. He said, to them, “If you want to ride in the canoe to Détroit, raise your hand. The foreman and I won’t vote.” Four of the other eight men slowly raised their hands and looked around. Benoit looked at his feet. Jolicoeur began to whistle la claire fontaine, and then the men smiled and thought of their enfants at home. Another minute and all hands were raised.
They immediately set out. They would use the grand canot du maître, the largest of their work canoes. All the men and their dog would fit. It had been raised on planks and overturned to avoid being filled with snow and ice. Turning it over, they lowered it to the ground and piled in, laughing, convinced they would never see Détroit that night.
But no sooner than Jolicoeur had installed himself in the back of the canoe than they were airborne. The men were terrified but as the canoe went aloft, they became enchanted. Below they saw the smoke curling from the chimney of their barracks. In the far distance, they saw the small campfires of the Indian village. It was a moonlit night and stars danced in the heavens, shining down on a landscape of freshly fallen snow. It was all sparkle and magic.
They sped through the air and in no time at all they gasped and saw the lights of Grosse Pointe and Assumption in the distance, and Détroit dimly rising in the winter night. They were beyond happy. Soon they would be at the festival hall. Everyone would be there. They came ever closer, but as the tops of the little cabins outside town passed underneath, the canoe began to rock violently back and forth and their joy turned on them. They began to pray, demanding Jolicoeur do something to make it right.
“Sorry boys, I’m not steering this canoe. Remember the deal. Be careful what you say and what you reach for!”
They were in a mad fright as the canoe began to lower over the town. Benoit saw one chapel and begged to be let off. Then another came into view and Peltier shouted and cursed. The hound began to howl and all tumult broke out as they approached another church steeple, it was Ste. Anne’s, and the canoe heading straight for it! Benoit lost his senses and thought that one way or the other, this night would end in terrible sin, so he reached for the spire and prayed to be delivered.
He grabbed hold, the canoe began to swing around the steeple in a wild circle and the canoe was launched again before swiftly falling out of the sky, dropping from twice the height of the church rooftop into a deep drift of snow.
There was all silence, save for the fête inside the hall down the lane. But the men roused themselves and looked at each other. They shook off the snow and laughed. Jolicoeur sat back and smiled. It was time for a party, and they had arrived.
The sound of music and cheer bellowed out as they opened the door and walked in. True to Jolicoeur’s word, they were greeted as they walked in, but no sooner did they kiss their wives than the ladies were off dancing with someone else. Their children hugged their fathers in passing, barely a word spoken. There was good cheer yes, but the men felt a bit let down. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea after all. It was as if a mist had fallen, and the men were hardly noticed. It was an infernal deal indeed.
The men congregated near the food and realized they weren’t all that hungry. They had drinks in their hands, but didn’t feel much like drinking. The dancing went on without them. Benoit was saddest of all. He looked upon his boys who were growing more every day and their attentions were elsewhere tonight.
The evening wore thin. Soon excitement mounted as midnight approached. But for the men, it was time to leave. Disappointed, the lumbermen found their wives for a kiss goodbye, and everyone was waving good cheer as they filed out the door. The old year waned and the New Year came in. They slowly made for their canoe and Jolicoeur laughed as they all slouched into their places.
“Enjoy yourself boys?” he asked as the canoe again took flight. Their old hound bayed, but as for the men, there was only silence as they flew into the night.
Back at the rêveillon everyone was happy, and with the New Year, they all raised a glass to the fathers and husbands who were out at camp. They all laughed and sang into the night.
Peltier’s wife said to Madame St. Louis, “I could feel my husband so close to my heart tonight. It was as if they were all here with us and we were together.”
Little Pierre Peltier tugged on his mother’s arm, “Maman! I was at the window and I saw a canoe in the air! Come look!” She smiled and looked and saw nothing, but as they turned away she heard a dog howl in the distance. She told her son, “It’s time for sleep, not stories, my little one. Off we go.”
When morning came in Détroit, the townsfolk all roused themselves for early mass, shaking off last night’s brandy. But as the first arrived at the church, a great alarm went up. In the high snowdrifts at the side of the sanctuary, a canot du maître was discovered, lodged deep inside. Amazed at such a prank they began to dig it out. But their confusion turned to shock and horror as nine men were found buried inside, and a sad old dog, frozen as the Northern night was long. Last night’s fête turned quickly to sorrow.
As from days of old and forevermore the nights of December are haunted by the sight of a flying canoe across the skies of New France, a shocking spectre to all who behold it. And from that fateful night on, the tale has been told of the nine poor workmen and their faithful hound. In the ride of the damned, they had steered their own course to eternal wandering in the moonlit nights of Winter for having made a wicked deal with the young man from the Ile des Sorciers.