As some of you know, over the years, I have been writing a series of vignettes on a variety of subjects. Pressed by Kevin to publish one or two of them as an inaugural venture on the new website of the Hudson Historical Society, I offer you a glimpse into a New Year's evening at my uncle Alphée's home in Alstonvale.
Maben W. Poirier
As we age and are inevitably led to reflect upon our childhood experiences, it dawns on us that some of these experiences were more than ordinary. In truth, they were more than memorable in the strictly conventional sense of the term. In fact, we often are forced to conclude that it is not an exaggeration to say that they were formative of our very identify as persons, and served to anchor us in a family, in a community, and in a culture, unlike any formal educational experience we might have had, and which was ostensibly designed to teach us what we needed to know in later life. Indeed, we recognise that no event which will happen to us in life, no experience which will make itself ours in the future, will ever affect us in quite the way we were once affected long ago. It is as if our bearings had been set by an event or experience at the dawn of our being, and these bearings have played a role in guiding us ever since.
For many of the younger ones in our family, I think it fair to say that a warehouse of experiences was provided us by our uncle Alphée, who, at times, it seemed to us children, knew all of the mysteries at the centre of our family, of our community, and of our world. And what was better still was the fact that he was not at all reluctant to reveal his secrets to us all, if we showed the slightest interest. Like the bards of old, he was capable of drawing out of his storehouse of tales a story to suit not only the occasion, but often literally the hour of the day.
As in all rites of initiation, so too in this initiation into the mysteries of our family and community, there was a ritualised procedure which had to be observed. After a hearty meal around the festive season, playing-cards would be brought out of the sideboard drawer, and teenagers and elders alike would sit down to a game of 500. And for four or five hours, without any respite, it was sheer delight that overcame all of us around our uncle's table. Although score was kept, wins and losses counted for nothing amongst us. The pleasure we experienced in one another's company was enough for all of us to live by for the rest of our lives. And then, around midnight, our uncle would suggest that the cards be put away, and that tea, chocolate cake, apple and mince pie, etc., be brought out for "a snack"-"a snack" that was a veritable second dinner. This was a sure sign we were going to be privileged to a story-and usually, not only to one, but to dozens.
Our uncle was a practised story-teller-a real charmer, some would say. He would begin telling his story in an almost imperceptible fashion. If you were not listening closely to everything that was going on around the table, you frequently did not even realise he had begun to tell his tale, so expert was he at weaving his story into the chatter that was taking place. A comment here on how things today were not as they used to be, or as they had been during his youth-a comment there about his father's telling him where "old mister so-and-so" lived in the woods, off Harwood Road, in the old days, and how, while walking in the bush, the other day, he came across part of the foundation of the old-man's house-and he was off. For three hours or more nothing could stop him. Occasionally, hair-raising accounts of the most incredible sort were passed off as regular fare, and not even the adults showed signs of scepticism or incredulity. In fact, his audacity frequently sparked others to compete with him, but rarely did they have the wealth of stories he had at his disposal, nor the skill required to create the tension, despite their often very commendable performances.
One story, in particular, I remember to this day, so often did I hear it told. It is the story of-well, let me tell it to you, not in his words, but in words which closely approximate his words, and judge for yourself.
"Children and young people generally have it easy these days-don't they, Walter? They seem to remain young for a much longer period of time than used to be the case in times past. And they are less responsible for themselves than in the 'old days.' Besides, they're not confronted with those mysteries in life which used to confront our parents, and even us, to some extent. When I was young, I remember my father told me that when he was but a bit-of-a-child, he was obliged to walk home alone, from the village, one evening in the late fall. This was much before the arrival of electricity locally, and, of course, prior to the invention of street-lights; and, as you know, it gets dark early in late autumn. By four thirty or five o'clock in the afternoon in the month of November, it is virtually pitch black, you know. Well, it was dark that evening. In fact, it was even darker than usual for it had been raining most of the day, and although it was not raining as he was walking home, it was still very cloudy. Grandpa-that mythical figure from the distant past, who died before any of us teenagers were born-was a mere youngster at the time, passed by St. James cemetery. He went down Macaulay's Hill, and past Frank Thompson's farm. Of course, Macaulay's Hill wasn't known as Macaulay's Hill in those days. It was la Grande Côte; and Frank's wasn't Frank's; it was his father's. No matter. Frank's was the last house on the road before Harwood, and Grandpa was feeling brave. But as he neared the second gully, just a bit past what later became Anna Berger's place-you know the gully Mabel (and a nod of recognition would be given by his sister)-the one where old Mr. G. tipped-over while driving his horse and buggy, and broke his arm, when we were children, well (and our uncle would turn in our direction), as Grandpa neared that very spot, he noticed against the horizon, a slight distance ahead of him, a very tall person coming in his direction. He was dressed in a long dark-coloured coat. He had in his hand a fairly long walking-stick, and he was walking at a rapid enough pace. It could generally be said he seemed purposeful in his gait. Now, the unusual thing was that despite the fact that Grandpa knew almost everyone in the area, Grandpa couldn't make out who this person was. He didn't know him, it seems-it was too dark and all, but as he came closer, Grandpa thought it was old Mr. Séguin-a neighbour, you know. He owned McEwen's farm before the McEwen's bought it from his sons after his death, ...or maybe the other Mr. Séguin who owned the Tweedie place before the Tweedie's. (Again a nod of recognition would be given by the older members of the audience, who knew almost all of the members of the family in question.) However, as Grandpa got even closer to the oncoming stranger, he wasn't sure anymore, so he called out to him. 'Is that you Mr. Séguin? Est-ce-vous M. Séguin? If it is you, identify yourself.' No answer was forthcoming. Not a word, not a sound was made by the stranger. It was as if the tall stranger had not heard a word of what Grandpa had said, or, if he heard it, then he was playing at being completely deaf. And, of course, you know that in those days sound carried well. There were no trucks or cars to interfere with the transmission of the sound made by a man's voice-or even by a boy's voice, for that matter. At this point, Grandpa was beginning to be a bit frightened, of course, and so he shouted all the louder, 'Is that you Mr. Séguin? Est-ce-vous M. Séguin? If it is you, identify yourself.' Still, no answer. Who was it? Who could it be, if it wasn't Mr. Séguin? And as the person was approaching Grandpa, Grandpa began noticing he was too tall for Mr. Séguin-way too tall. It couldn't be M. Séguin. It wasn't that M. Séguin was a short man-you knew his son, didn't you Philip? (and Philip would nod his head in acquiescence, saying nothing so as not to interrupt the flow and the tension of his brother's story)-he wasn't a short man. He was fully six feet tall. Well, his father was much taller, Grandpa said. Who was this stranger? And as Grandpa continued along the road in the direction of the on-coming stranger, and as he listened for the sound of his walking-stick tapping the stones, but hearing nothing, he began to wonder about what he should do. Should he turn back towards Frank Thompson's, or should he keep on? Now, you must remember that it was somewhat unusual in those days to see strangers in the village in the fall of the year, and this person was beginning to give every indication of being a stranger to Grandpa. Well, Grandpa decided to keep on going home. He didn't have too far to go, and he was expected for supper. Moreover, he knew that if he let fear get the better of him, he'd maybe never be able to walk home in the dark again. After all, who could it be but a neighbour? Still? ...who was this man ahead of him? Oh my God! It couldn't be.... Grandpa noticed he was even taller than he had originally suspected-way taller. And where was his...?, ...his head? Oh, my Lord...! Did he have a head? (And as our uncle asked the question, you could feel the hair on the back of your head stand straight on end, no matter how often you had heard the story.) Surely, he had a head? He simply had to have a head? But where was it? And as the tall headless stranger approached Grandpa, Grandpa knew it was too late to turn back, and so he decided he would pretend not to notice something was very wrong. And as they passed one another in the dark, Grandpa going west and the headless stranger going east, Grandpa said that he managed a barely audible Bonsoir monsieur. But, again, no reply was forthcoming from the stranger. Not a word issued from him. And after they passed one another on the road, Grandpa said that without breaking his stride, he turned around to get a better look at the being that had just passed him by, and as he turned, it was absolutely clear. The being either had no head, or had the smallest, most minuscule, head a being was capable of having. Now, Grandpa, as all of you know (and here he was directing his attention to his brothers and sisters around the table) was not a fearful man, and he certainly wasn't given to telling outlandish tales, but to the very end of his life, he was convinced that the being he met on the road, here in Alstonvale, a mere half-mile from where we sit, was not a human being. It was a messenger. And as he said "messenger," we all invariably wondered "from whom? ...and what message was he carrying?" It is curious, isn't it Agnes, the sorts of things that happen to us in life (and his sister-in-law would shake her head in acquiescence)."
Now, on one of the many occasions our uncle told this tale, making sure to add a new twist with each telling, his cousin Albert was present. And as our uncle was concluding his story, Albert, almost unable to contain himself any longer, so consumed was he by the tension of the story, said: "You know, Alphée?, I've never said this to another soul in all my life, and I'm sixty-three years old, but, when I was a child, I too met this same headless stranger on the road in Choisy, not far from Graham's post-office. And I too tried to speak to him, but got no answer. I was never able to speak about this to anyone-not even to my father. But, you know?, uncle Emile was right. He had no head. HE HAD NO HEAD!" And as the terrifying words traversed Albert's lips, and as the horror sunk in, a cold shiver travelled up and down the spine of adult and teenager alike, for, in secret, we all asked ourselves the same question: "Where might this headless stranger be wandering tonight?"
Then, as if to change the pace and maybe demonstrate that his repertoire of stories did not restrict itself to the supernatural, uncle Alphée would say: "This reminds me of yet another story I must tell you. This is not a scary one like the last one. But it's scary alright. This too is a true story. It happened to me, ...right here, ...in Hudson. When I was a youngster, around sixteen or seventeen, just a little older than you are now, I drove taxi for a short while for the B. family. They owned the hotel in Hudson in those days, you know?, and they also had a taxi service to accommodate the residents of the village and, of course, their customers. Well, it was in mid January, just after the holiday season, and we were sitting around in the hotel kitchen after supper, about to begin to play our nightly game of cards. There was no one in the hotel, and it didn't seem anyone would be showing up. It was snowing "to beat the band" outside, when suddenly at about seven thirty the door flings open, and a complete stranger walks in, and wants to know if he can be driven to Oka. Now remember, this is January, and there are no strangers in the village in winter. Of course, there is no way they can get into the village unless it's by train, since there are no roads open to the village during the winter months. In any case, here is this stranger before us who wants to go to Oka. So after a bit of haggling, and after we attempt to persuade the man that this is "a hell-of-a-time" to want to go to Oka-all to no avail, I must say-I decide, with the permission of my boss, to go out and harness the horses and tackle them to the double-sleigh for the trip to Oka. When everything is ready, I pop my head through the door, and I tell the passenger, who, by this time, is having a little drink, that we are about ready to leave. Of course, I fully expect the hotel owner's eldest son will accompany me on the trip. But no such luck. They were not a brave lot, you know. What can I say? Well, the passenger finishes his drink, comes out, and gets on the seat beside me, and we're off. It's all rather pleasant. It's not too cold, and the snow is not as serious a problem as I had at first expected it to be. We cross the bridge at the east end of the village, and we are moving along at a good pace, when, as we near a particular house in Como, a house that I won't identify right now, although it still stands, and there are very decent people living there at present, the stranger makes a request of me. He asks me if I would mind stopping at this house to pick up his friend, who also wants to go to Oka. So, I tell him, "Fine, why not?", and I muse to myself, if I run into trouble while crossing the lake on the snow-covered ice, I'll have yet another pair of hands. The stranger says nothing at this point, as I arrive in front of the house-a house not far from the roadside. The stranger gets off the sleigh, asks me to wait, and says he and his friend will be out in a minute or two. Within a couple of minutes, the door of the house flings open, and in the light of the open doorway, I see my former passenger, along with a resident of the house, supporting my new passenger, who visibly has a serious problem with his legs. They seem to be completely stiff and useless. Real crowbars, you might say. So much for the help this guy might be on the ice, I say to myself. No matter; they manoeuvred him towards the back-seat of the sleigh, they adjust his raccoon coat and fur hat, and we're off once more."
"As we're moving through Como, I'm making a lot of small talk. My original passenger is, of course, keeping pace with me, while the guy in the back-seat has been silent since the start of the voyage. So, I occasionally turn to him to indicate I also want to include him in the conversation, but I notice the fellow beside me encourages me to ignore my back-seat passenger, and is always ready with a quick reply to whatever observation or question I may be directing to the man with the stiff legs. No problem, I say to myself, there's no point to being impolite, so I'll continue to include both of my passengers in the conversation. But as we turn the corner to get onto the river ice and head for Oka, which is a little over a mile ahead of us, I notice something curious-very curious. I notice my passenger in the rear is riding rather heavy, for as we pass over a pressure ridge along the shoreline, I observe he seems not to have cushioned his weight against such eventualities, and he rebounds on the seat rather forcefully. 'Are you OK back there?' says I. No response is to be heard from the guy in the back-seat. But the guy beside me says; 'Oh, he's alright.' And as he says this, I begin to wonder. What's goin' on back there? What's that fella got? Can't he talk for himself? And then it occurs to me. My Goodness, is this guy alive? Am I transporting a dead body? Is that why his legs are so stiff? Is it a corpse that sits behind me? Of course, I can't let the fellow on the seat beside me know what's goin through my mind, and that I'm maybe on to him. After all, we still have the river to cross. What am I to do? Oh, maybe I'm imagining it all, I say to myself. The guy is perhaps just snoozing, or maybe he was drunk when he was put into the back-seat. Yeah,... sure, I tell myself, that's it, as I begin to notice that my conversations with the passenger sitting beside me are not as regular nor as easy as they were up till the point I spotted something was strange. And so I make a special effort to engage in a lot of small talk, and I half convince myself that nothing's wrong, when, as we near the middle of the river, I strike another pressure ridge, this time a much larger one, and the guy in the back almost falls over sideways on the seat. In fact, he would have slid right out of the seat, had it not been for the fact that the fellow beside me reaches back and quickly pulls him upright again. I tell you, a cold sweat comes over me, as I begin to wonder whether I'm going to get out of this alive. I double my effort to pretend I've noticed nothing. I talk about the fact that the storm is letting up, I talk about the generally fine winter weather we have been having. I talk about almost anything that comes to mind, except the one thing which is on my mind, and we make it to the other shore. As we enter Oka, I ask for directions from my one speaking passenger. He directs me to a small house on a side-street away from the waterfront, and once in front of the house, he again asks me to wait, while he gets off and goes to see if someone's home. It's rather obvious to me that someone is home-the lights are on all over the house-and that this is just an excuse he's making to allow him to get help to carry-off the corpse in the back-seat. But I go along with it. As the guy enters the house and closes the door, I turn around and nudge the passenger behind me to see if there is any life there, and he falls over completely on his side on the seat. "Oh, my God! He's dead," I say to myself. "What am I gonna do? Shall I toss him off the seat and leave? What am I gonna do? What if I can't manage to toss him out of the sleigh before the other guy gets back?" And as I toy with the idea of tossing the corpse out of the sleigh, the door opens and my one-living-passenger and two other fellows come out of the house. Needless to say, I'm facing front, and pretending not to have noticed what has happened to the guy at the back of me. The three approach the sleigh from the rear, and just as they did back in Como, two of them grab hold of the guy under the arms, wedge him between themselves, and legs trailing under him in the snow in a semi-folded position, they carry him into the house. That's the last I see of the guy. After getting him into the house, my other passenger returns to pay me, and I get ready to leave. As I turn the sleigh around and leave, I glance back at the house and I notice the lamps dim, and then go out. I swear, I literally swear, that one of the guys who helped to carry the body into the house was the same fellow who helped put the body into the sleigh back in Como."
"I return to Hudson by the same route I've come, and I wonder all the way back, what's happened here. I tell you, I can't recall anything that may have occurred on my return trip, so full of questions am I about what had just taken place."
"In the newspapers a week or so later, I notice there is mention of the discover of a body in a raccoon coat and fur hat in an unusually contorted position lying on the edge of the road leading out of Oka, in the direction of St. Benoit. It says that the body had been found by a passer-by, and that signs indicated it had not been a violent death. It further states that police would like to speak to anyone who might provide them with information about the death, and especially offer reasons for the unusual way of disposing of the corpse. I say nothing. Of course, what do you want me to say? What do I really know?"
And so it went for another two and a half hours. With each passing story our uncle told, we felt ourselves being initiated into the ways of our family and our community.
Topics: Peoplepoirmw on Tue, 2006-05-09 06:34.