GENOT “WINTER ELK” PICOR for THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT
It is no secret we voyageurs are a superstitious lot. Death can come quickly and without warning or slowly over time as our bodies break down. We are a rowdy bunch, living for the moment. We practice our faith and manners when it’s convenient, especially under the watchful eyes of the curé (priest), but when his back is turned we indulge our bawdy desires. Most of the stories we hear and tell are embellished in one way or another. One tale in particular has always remained with me. This story changed the direction of my life.
My father told me about The Devil and the Werewolves when I was but a young sprout. At that time, I wished to be a “paysan (peasant farmer)” like my father. We had no wealth like the merchants, but we answered to no one. The land was good and our name was well regarded in our community. It was my father’s wish that I would inherit the farm and the land on which the house was built.
Each morning before breakfast we would rise to begin our daily chores. I cared for the animals and did as I was told. On Sunday, our family walked to Mass like ducks in a line, our father and mother leading the way there and back. We recited line and verse in Latin and sang our hymns. Except for caring for the animals, Sunday was our day of leisure. Life was predictable, but as I got older, I became bored with the ordinary and longed for a more adventurous life…that of a voyageur! Father sensed this in me. Believing that I was growing tired with farm work, and giving into wanderlust, he shared a story with me. As I recall, I was around fifteen years of age.
One Sunday evening after he had drunk a fair amount of wine, he took out his pipe and stuffed a goodly amount of tabac (tobacco) into the bowl. He lit his pipe and leaned back in his creaky wooden chair. Soft wisps of smoke rose above the orange ember which cast a shadow on his long, weathered face and piercing blue eyes.
“Yvain-Antoine, I would like to tell you a story my father told me. I considered leaving the farm when I was your age. Nothing stirs a young man’s soul like the call of adventure, especially in this rugged land, but it is a hard life. The company you will keep will be debauched and unholy.”
“I see how you watch the voyageurs when they come into port. Their language is debased and their manners are savage. I do not approve of their behavior. This is not a life I want for you. When these voyageurs are not at work, they lie around, idle, boasting about their vulgar conquests. That is a life that is sure to corrupt your soul. Here is a tale you should take to heart.”
“There was a man named Jean-François. He owned the finest farm in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region of Quebec. He was a man who enjoyed his leisure. During the warm weather, he could be seen sitting on his front porch, playing his vielle à roue (hurdy-gurdy) or his guimbarde (jaw-harp), casually passing the time. During the winter, never once did his neighbors see him attend to his cows, sheep or horses, and yet, they were fed and cared for. In the summer, his crops were the finest around, but no one ever saw him sow a field. His fences stood strong and straight. His barn was never in disrepair. How was it then, that his farm was in perfect order? He had no family and no hired help.”
Father paused and took a long drag on his pipe before he continued. Pipe smoke billowed from his mouth like that of a dragon when he spoke.
“Late at night, the people of the village said they heard loud, thunderous noises coming his property. So frightening were the clamors, the people began keeping vessels of holy water beside their beds. The townsfolk avoided going near his property. If Jean-François approached them on the street, the people made sure to take a wide berth around him.”
“Father,” I asked, “May I ask a question?”
He nodded gently but did not look me in the eyes.
“Why didn’t the people just ask Jean-François about the loud noises?”
Father looked down at me and leaned forward.
“They were too afraid, for the cacophony abruptly ceased at 3:00 a.m.; the time opposite of our dear Lord’s passing on the cross! This meant the devil was the reason for the discordance!”
I remember that moment, for a chill rose up my spine.
“One evening, Jean-François’ neighbor Alphonse was returning home after an evening of drinking cognac à la pêche (peach brandy). He staggered across the property of Jean-François, when the most terrifying sound roared overhead. Alphonse threw himself to the ground, and to his horror, an enormous canoe descended from the sky to rest next to the home of Jean-François. The devil himself leaped from the bowls of that canoe, lashing a fiery whip as he shrieked a command!”
“Descendez mes bêtes (Get out my animals; ‘bêtes’ can also mean foolish)!” he charged. Father’s voice rose to a terrifying crescendo.
“Out from the canoe sprang twenty grotesque creatures with glowing eyes and shaggy coats, but walking upright like men. These were les loups-garous (the werewolves)! They were voyageurs who had signed a pact with the devil. Like a cancer, their slothful laziness and debauchery had eaten away their morals. Les loups-garous were soon joined by none other than Jean-François himself, and like whirlwinds, the demons spread out across the property, working feverishly to complete the farm chores. When they were finished, the creatures climbed back into the canoe, along with Jean-François and the devil. The canoe rose into the night sky and streaked away like a comet. The raucous crew did not disguise their intentions to indulge in the most wicked of actions.”
“The next morning, Alphonse reported what he had seen to the priest. While Jean- François was in town that afternoon, the faithful men of the village were instructed to sneak on to his property. Before Jean-François was to return home, the men were told to sprinkled holy water on the property and on the site where the canoe had landed the night before.”
“That night, everyone hid among the crops to witness the descent of the devil’s canoe. When the devil and les loups-garous stepped onto the sanctified ground, they screamed and writhed in pain! The devil believed Jean-François was behind the treachery in an effort to save his soul. He snatched Jean-François by the throat and flung him into the canoe. The two blazed off into the night!”
Father’s body and voice now relaxed.
“Holding high his silver cross for all to witness, the priest and menfolk approached les loups-garous, who humbled themselves in pitiful reverence. All could see the first fingers of the possessed were longer than their middle fingers, a sure sign they had submitted to the devil. The priest pricked these fingers with a knife that had been washed in holy-water to draw out their blood. Miraculously, les loups-garous became men once again.”
“Each man threw himself at the feet of the priest, thanking him and kissing his robes. They begged for forgiveness and the priest absolved them of their sins. The company admitted they once were voyageurs, debauched and unholy. The men vowed not to return to their past livelihoods. They became habitant farmers, always honored jour du sabbat (the sabbath day) and never neglected the care of their home or property. And as for Jean-François, he was never seen again. Many say he still labors in servitude to the devil himself!”
Now, had I been a few years younger, he might have convinced me to honor his advice. Il a craché dans ma soupe aux pois, mais j’ai décidé de le goûter quand même (He spit in my pea soup, but I decided to taste it anyway)! Father was a pious man. He liked his wine, the security of his farm and the prestige he had earned through years of hard-work and frugality. To him, la vie mondaine (the mundane life) was his desire, but it was not the life for me.
One day, without the knowledge or consent of my parents, I signed on with a voyageur brigade. I asked my brother Etienne to inform my family that I was off to seek my fortune if that was to be my destiny. “Qui Vivra Verra; Who Will Live, Will See.” It would be several months before I saw them again. Etienne waited until my companions and I were gone from sight, lost among the vast blueness of Lake Huron until he turned for home with the news of my departure.
This story is loosely based on the French-Canadian folktale “The Devil and the Werewolves” Retold by S.E. Schlosser and Genot “Winter Elk” Picor. “He Spit in My Pea Soup!” as told by Genot “Winter Elk” Picor from The Voyageur Tales of Elan D’Hiver © Genot Picor, 2019.
Published on Voyageur Heritage with permission of the author.