My Halloween gift to you: the scariest story I tell. It’s an old French-Canadian tale that I translated & made work for me. When I tell it, I always make it shorter–it’s way too long for telling–or a blog. I hope you enjoy it anyway.
(Wenceles-Eugene Dick, 1895)
Like many others, more than you know, I am not from this place, upstate New York, but from Canada. We come, bringing our families, belongings, stories–and secrets. After all, the way is easy enough on the highways or rivers and lakes that connect us. Almost anyone–or anything–could make the journey. And if I were you, I’d worry about our coming, just a little.
I want to tell you an old story from French Canada called “Jean Plante and the Loup-Garou.” The Québécois have had reason to fear the loups-garous for three hundred years and more. If a man isn’t a good Catholic; if, for example, he fails to observe Easter for seven years in a row, he may be turned into a loup-garou, a werewolf. By day he goes about his business, no one the wiser. But at night, every night, he becomes a huge wolf-like creature with eyes that blaze like hellfire, doomed to run with the other loups-garous unless someone, somehow cuts him and draws blood. And who would even try? After all, the fangs of the loups-garous could easily, painfully tear a person to pieces.
I heard this tale one chilly fall evening in a tavern in Saint Francis on the island of Orléans, also called the island of sorcerers. At first I was disinclined to believe the stories being told that night. Perhaps my skepticism showed on my face as my husband and I nursed our drinks in a dim corner. For the storyteller spoke directly to me:
Don’t be so suspicious, Madame. Your doubts may come back to bite you. After all, these supernatural happenings are the ways le bon Dieu chastises his errant followers… the poor souls. Who are you to question the methods of the good Lord? What a pity if you were to suffer the fate of the wretched Jean Plante of Argentenay. He also doubted. Not that I am necessarily making comparisons.
Jean Plante was a little like our friend here. He didn’t believe in werewolves; he laughed at ghost stories and mocked the people who told them. Whenever the subject came up, he sniggered and said, “if monsters that go bump in the night should come my way, I’ll make short work of them.”
Well, it was a foolish way to talk. And indecent for a good Christian who respects the secrets of the good Lord. Not that I’m saying the same to you, Madame. I’m just saying it in a general sense.”
Jean Plante was thirty when this all happened. He was strong and fearless. You’d have a hard time finding his equal on the island of Orleans. He operated a mill on the banks of the Argentenay River, more than half a mile from his nearest neighbor. During the day, he worked in the mill with his younger brother Thomas. But at night, his brother left, and he slept alone on the second floor of the mill.
If he drank too much, he’d get angry if anyone looked at him sideways and he drank too much six days out of seven. When he was drunk, everyone kept out of his way. He had a big scythe hanging near his bed and you wouldn’t want him to come after you with that.”
One afternoon Jean Plante was working in the mill—and drinking too– when a quêteux, a beggar, came asking for charity for the love of God.
“Charity, you old lazy beggar! Look here, I’ll show you charity!” And he ran at him and gave him a swift kick in the backside.
The quêteux picked himself up and brushed himself off, but said nothing. He just looked at Jean thoughtfully and walked instead to Thomas who had just finished unloading a wagon full of oats.”
Charity, for the love of God,’ he said politely to Thomas, holding his worn cap in his hands.
But Thomas was busy, whipping his oxen, trying to get them to move. He spoke even more harshly than his brother. He cursed the beggar viciously and raised his whip as if he would hit him. As before, the quêteux said nothing. But he put a withered hand on the side of the mill, then slowly walked back into the dark spruce forest.
The quêteux was scarcely gone, when CRICK, CRACK, the mill wheel abruptly stopped turning. Jean cursed and went to see what had happened. He thoroughly checked the big wheel, the gears, everything. Everything seemed in order. But nevertheless no water flowed,
He called to his brother, “Hey Thomas!’
“What do you want?’
“’The mill has stopped.’”
“’I can see that for myself.’”
“’How would I know? It’s your mill.’”
“’I think you do know. You must have done something. You probably dumped in oats that were full of stones.’”
“There are no stones in those oats. Don’t you think I would have noticed?”
“’Maybe your eyesight isn’t what it should be today. Or your good sense.’”
“Take a look for yourself,” said Thomas. And under the blazing eyes of his older brother, he began to empty the huge funnel where he’d dumped the oats, ready to be milled.”
“Jean searched through the oats but found nothing at all.”
“’This is bizarre,’” he muttered. “Everything is working fine. But the mill won’t go.’”
“Thomas suddenly slapped his forehead. ‘I know what happened,’ he said. ‘It was the old quêteux, the beggar. He put a curse on the mill because we turned him away.’”
“ ‘A curse? You fool! We don’t have time for superstitious nonsense. We have work to do.’ And he gave a second kick—this time to his brother.”
“Thomas flew into the air and landed on all fours. When he scrambled to his feet he was beside himself with fury. He flew at his brother. But Jean Plante could thrash a half-dozen men the size of his brother. He grabbed Thomas’ arms and held him tight.”
“’Don’t even think of it,’ he warned. ‘If you ever lay a hand on me, brother or no, you won’t live long enough to regret it.’”
“Thomas knew that he was not as strong as his brother. Trembling and crying from rage, he went to fetch his cap. Then he left, shaking a menacing fist at his brother.”
“When you see me again…when you see me again….”
Now Jean was alone. For the rest of the afternoon, he tried to fix the mill. The wheel turned once, and then Crack, it stopped altogether.
He did nothing because there was nothing he could think of to do. He didn’t know that it was the beginning of the end. He set his jug on the table and began to drink. By midnight he was as drunk as a skunk.
“He wanted to go to sleep. Easy enough on most nights. But on that particular night, his feet didn’t operate properly. He bumped into the furniture and kept taking wrong turns on the short walk to his bed. Finally he got angry.”
“’It must be right about here,’ he thought. ‘If my feet won’t carry me there, I’ll just throw myself in the direction of the bed.’”
“He leapt forward, his arms stretched out. But it wasn’t his wretched bed that he landed on, but the opening to the stairwell. He rolled limply, awkwardly down the stairs and found himself outside, under the stars. To get back upstairs, in his condition? Impossible. He must sleep on the hard earth all night.”
“Even though he was drunk, Jean couldn’t fall asleep. For hours, he counted stars and watched clouds pass in front of the moon. Around two o’clock in the morning, a powerful wind blew from the north, engulfing the stairwell, and blowing out the candle he’d left burning in his upstairs room.
He found it amusing.
“Monsieur Wind. Merci beaucoup. How kind of you to blow up the stairs and blow out my candle. You keep house better than me.”
He began to laugh, but not for long. A few minutes later, the candle light reappeared and went from window to window as if carried by an invisible hand. At the same time, from inside the mill came the sound of chains, of groans, of stifled cries and whispers, terrifying enough to make your hair stand on end, to make you believe that all the devils of hell were celebrating Black Sabbath inside.
Just when this commotion had died down, a new terror began. Scattered flames, green, blue, and red danced on the roof and jumped from one gable to the other. They even brushed against the poor drunk lying on the ground, scorching his beard and hair a little.
Finally, a huge dog, at least three feet high came out of the forest and stopped in front of the miller, gazing at him with red eyes that burned like charcoal.
Jean shivered, maybe from cold. He tried again and again to get up, to get back to his house. But terror paralyzed him as much as the drink and he couldn’t move until morning, though by then all the events of the night had ceased.”
With the light of the sun, his courage returned and he made fun of the things he had seen. Bad rum had caused bad dreams. Still, he felt an uneasiness which he overcame by tossing down a few more drinks. Soon he was as drunk as the night before. Defiantly he dared all the spirits and the loups-garous of the island to come back and try to frighten him.”
All day long he tried, unsuccessfully, to fix the mill.
When evening approached, Jean was apprehensive. It was all well and good to say that he had dreamed the events of the night before, but he couldn’t quiet his mind. He should have gone to the village to be near other people, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell anyone. He couldn’t stand the thought of people laughing at him. Instead he chose, bravely, to sleep again in the mill. But just in case, he carefully locked all the doors and windows.
All went well, until midnight. Jean began to think he might have a peaceful night, that the events of the night before were only in his imagination. But BONG, BONG…the clock began to strike twelve. The uproar began again. POW. The sound of a fist. BOOM. A heavy footstep. Groans again. The clank of chains. Some bursts of laughter. Whispers. Some blasts of cold air. Pandemonium. Enough to make lesser men die of fright.”
Instead Jean Plante turned white angry. He grabbed his huge scythe from its place on the wall and searched the whole mill from the attic to the ground floor and outside too. He noticed something curious. When he went to the place where he heard a sound, it stopped, and started up in the place he had just left. It was enough to make a man mad.
He gave up, went back to his bed and pulled his blankets over his heed. Still he shook the rest of the night.
The same thing happened every night for the next week. On the evening of the eighth day, the evening of All Saint’s Day, Jean was alone as usual. He hadn’t gone to mass since all of this had begun. He claimed that he was sick. Really he preferred to drink his worries away and to defy the good Lord—if truly it was He who had sent these troubles. Poor Jean Plante was not the man of a week before. His face was puffy and his eyes burned with fever.
“Outside a fierce north-east wind blew all night long, pelting the windows with rain. The night was as black as hell. Jean sat at his table, gazing stupidly at the jug in front of him. Drops of tallow dripped from his candle.”
Suddenly the clock struck eleven. Jean counted and trembled. He wanted to get up, but pride held him in his chair.
“I will not get up. I will not run away. Not me. No. I am afraid of nothing.”
He poured himself another drink. Midnight arrived. BONG. BONG. Jean’s eyes opened wide. On the final strike of twelve, a violent gust of wind blew the door open. There, at the top of the stairs, sat the huge dog of the previous nights. He sat on his haunches, eying Jean. For a good five minutes, the miller and the dog stared at each other; the one terrified, the other calm but menacing.
At last Jean could take it no longer. He got up to grab the candlestick so he could see better. The candle went out. He quickly searched for the packet of matches which had to be on the table—womewhere. But he couldn’t find them.
Now he was truly terrified and began to back up in the direction of his bed, always facing the beast, which slowly began to pace the length of the bedroom. He heard the monstrous dog draw closer to him step by step.
ts eyes were bright as fire and it kept them on Jean Plante.
When the dog was not more than three steps from him, the poor man lost his head and grabbed his scythe.
It is a werewolf!” he cried in a strangled voice. And he brought back his powerful arms and struck at the animal furiously
In that instant, his world turned upside down. With a roar like thunder, the mill wheel began to turn. His room filled with light. Thomas Plante stood in front of his brother with a lit match in his hand. The massive dog had disappeared.
Silently Thomas relit the candle. He said to his brother, who still clutched his scythe,
“What the devil are you doing in the darkness? Have you gone mad”
Jean was speechless. He looked at Thomas, who was missing the end of his right ear.
“Who did that to your ear?” he said, in a voice no louder than a whisper.
“You know already,” Thomas said harshly.
Jean threw the scythe down to embrace his brother. Then, from the floor of his room, he stooped to pick up the still-bloody ear of a dog. He looked first at it and then at his brother.
“It was you, then,” he whispered.’ He laughed but no sound came out.
Those were the last coherent words he spoke. Jean Plante was insane.”
The storyteller knocked the ashes out of his pipe to indicate that his story was done. He laid his pipe on the mantel and glanced at me, that cold fall evening, on the island of Orleans, also called the island of sorcerers, as if to see if I had grasped the folly of my doubts. Near the mantel, hanging from a nail on the wall, I spied a gruesome relic: the dried brown ear of what appeared to be some animal, perhaps a dog…or a wolf.
Of course that was years ago. You may believe that all the dreadful creatures of the night have long since died off. But can you be so sure? Has human nature changed one iota from that day to this? Perhaps le bon Dieu is still chastising his people, poor souls? If I were you, I’d worry a little about the creatures who might make the easy journey from Quebec to Saratoga. And whatever your faith, it’s probably a good idea to observe your religious customs with a pure and earnest heart.
© Margaret French